“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”-Mark Twain
Fear is a necessary human emotion, sometimes life-saving, sometimes paralyzing, sometimes making life exciting and worth living. Fear causes changes in brain functioning and behavior, leading to actions such as aggression, running away, hiding, or freezing. It is a combination of cognition and learning, existing entirely within the human mind. Fear is closely related to anxiety, but with anxiety the perceived disaster is entirely unavoidable. With fear, the mind believes that there is a behavioral response that will resolve the problem. We either “fight”-act aggressively toward the threat, “flight”-run away from the threat, or “freeze”-remain paralyzed and hope that the threat will go away on its own. Like a lot of problematic human emotions, fear is hardwired in us as part of our evolutionary past. In early man, those that made the best use of fear were those that survived and passed this emotion on to their offspring. Like a lot of problematic human emotions, modern life does not require the intensity by which most of us experience these feelings.
Fear is an internal perception, existing, as Rod Serling would say, entirely within our own imagination. We learn fears through events that we have actually experienced, as well as vicariously through the experiences of others. Fear is best understood and dealt with from a cognitive behavioral perspective. Tony Blauer, a self-defense trainer from Canada, has studied the fear response in humans rather extensively. In his trainings, which I have attended and highly recommend, he addresses the physical and emotional response that people universally have when confronted with fears. Blauer discusses the denial which immediately sets in as part of the freeze response. Freezing when terrified exists in the animal world when animals “play dead” as a protective mechanism. Blauer teaches that to do so when physically attacked, can be a fatal mistake. His trainings emphasize that all of us have an ability to fight back when confronted with any form of fear. “It’s not the danger that makes us afraid, it is fear of danger that makes us afraid,” he says, “if you didn’t fear fear, what might you do?” As Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Gavin de Becker is the author of “The Gift of Fear,” in which he explores fear as a modern day survival mechanism. His idea is that fear can be useful if it is understood, and in some cases can be lifesaving. He feels that all of us need to separate our irrational fears of danger from intuition that could save our lives. “We all know that there are plenty of reasons to fear people from time to time. The question is, what are those times? Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger.” DeBecker correctly feels that eliminating all fear is a very bad idea, and distinguishing valid fear from irrational fear is necessary. Fear keeps us out of danger, makes life exciting, and is necessary as part of the human experience.
“Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out.” – Karl A. Menninger
There are ways that each of us can learn about our own, personal fears, and how best to individually categorize and cope with them. Many of you are probably familiar with acronyms about fear such as:
FEAR-false EVIDENCE appearing real. This acronym is asking you to question your evidence. What is the evidence here? How do I know this to be true? Who says? What’s the likelihood of this happening really? These are the types of questions to ask yourself.
FEAR-false EXPECTATIONS appearing real. This describes the projection that many of us do when going into a situation that we perceive as dangerous or a threat to us. Such expectations are usually accompanied by a visualization in the mind of some catastrophic outcome. Could there be a different outcome? What’s in my control here? I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. I’ll find out when I get there. These are more realistic self statements.Getting such statements out on paper can help put them in perspective.
Asking the appropriate questions of yourself, and examining your thoughts, is the best way to deal with fear cognitively. Here are some ways to deal with fear from a behavioral perspective:
Breathe! Breathing deeply from the abdomen is one of the best ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. A deep breath in which you focus more on the exhale can help lower your anxiety level and enable you to function despite your fear. Stop your thought process and focus on your breathing, breathing in slowly on a 7 count, and exhale vigorously and slowly on an 11 count. Remember the 7/11 strategy, but if you can’t, just remember to exhale longer than your inhale.
Visualize. See in your mind the outcome that you would like to have in this situation. The visualization does not have to be in big-screen cinematography. It just has to have a positive expectation. Work on visualization before stressful situations, as well as during them. Visualization before is one of the ways that athletes, martial artists, combat athletes, and military personnel set themselves up for success. Doing so allows you to get control of your imagination, which typically runs wild when fear sets in.
Quantify your fear. Asking yourself, “On a scale of 1 to 10 how frightened am I?” can allow you to step out of the box a bit in and separate your irrational mind from your rational mind, and lead you to make a better choice.
An easy strategy to use and rehearse regularly is the AWARE strategy:
A-Accept the fear. It won’t go away, so try to control it and make it smaller.
W-Watch the fear. Give it a number from 1 to 10, breathe in the 7/11 pattern, and make the fear go down.
A-Act as normally as you can. Your physical body continuing to function normally sends a powerful reassurance to the mind, bringing the emotional level down. Fake it till you make it works well in this situation.
R-Repeat, repeat, repeat, the above steps as necessary.
E-Expect the best. Expect this strategy to work, because it does!
I hope that this article will be of used to you in combating fears. In all reality, life is scary enough and we don’t need to make it any worse than it is. Fear is a state of mind that has its’ utility and benefits. An inability to control it, however, could be fatal. None of us can live our lives free of fear, the challenge of the human condition is to learn to control it and to use it to our advantage.
“Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you, it can heat your house. If you can’t control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you. If you can control your fear, it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn.”-Mike Tyson
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