It’s easy to forget, but from a primal point of view, fear is our very best friend. The ability of fear to stop you in your tracks helped keep your ancestors from getting killed before they had a chance to have children. Listening to our feelings of fear is part of the reason we are here still today. If we ignored all fear, our lives would be very short. So firstly, say thank you to your fear – it has kept you alive long enough to grow up and read this article!
‘Say thank you to your fear –
It has kept you alive long enough
to grow up and read this article!'
Today, people often fear the physical feelings associated with fear: the racing heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach, and muscle tension. And all the physical symptoms of fear have a good reason for them – if we were encountering a physical threat.
Physical changes associated with fear and why they happen
You may have heard of ‘fight or flight’ –when we are faced with physical danger (I like to imagine a tiger) our body prepares to either run away (flight) or fight.
Your heart beats faster to get blood to our muscles quicker so they can help us run away from the tiger.
Your breathing rate increases to get more oxygen into our blood and into our muscles, again so you can either run faster or punch that tiger.
You lose your appetite because digestion shuts down: digestion’s not important to running away or fighting.
Feeling lightheaded/dizzy is the result of all blood going to the muscles instead of the brain – higher level, abstract thought isn’t important when you’re facing down a big cat!
‘Butterflies in your stomach’ is part of an overall increase in tension in all our muscles, as they ready themselves to respond quickly.
Perspiration helps cool your body down, because your body expects to heat up as it runs away or fights that tiger.
Fear of Rejection
Almost all of us fear rejection by other people too. This is the fear that comes up when you consider doing something like public speaking or sharing your feelings with your partner. Looking back at the past, in primal societies, belonging was of utmost importance. If you disobeyed the rules of your tribe, you could find yourself cast out from the tribe, and living alone in the jungle, you were facing certain death. So seeking other’s approval is also hardwired into us, even though nowadays the consequences of rejection are mostly emotional rather than physical, and even though we live in much more tolerant and permissive societies, where differences of opinion and alternative lifestyles are much more openly supported.
How to use this knowledge to help you
Sometimes, fear is legitimate and should be listened to. But if you know intellectually that you are safe, and that really your fear is not appropriate given the situation, then you can use the following ideas to help calm you down.
1. Knowledge is power. You now know you don’t need to fear the feelings of fear. When you notice your heart beating quickly or your stomach churning, say to yourself ‘ah, my body thinks a tiger is about!’ Reassure your body that a tiger is not around, it’s just your boss (who does have sharp teeth and nasty claws, but won’t literally tear you to shreds).
2. Breathe! Slowing your breathing down is the one physical response you have control over. Tell your body it is safe by taking deep, slow breaths.
3. Exercise. Going for a run or a bike ride is like running away from the tiger. Doing push-ups or a weights session at the gym uses up energy as though you were fighting. Trick your body into thinking that it has evaded the threat through action, so it stops acting like a threat is still there.
4. Stay there. The only way to teach yourself not to feel fear at the possibility of emotional rejection is to do whatever it is you’re scared of. Speak up! You need to do this again and again, until you learn that expressing yourself doesn’t kill you. This doesn’t actually guarantee you won’t be rejected! It teaches you that even if you are rejected, you still survive.
So for example, the first time you speak in public, you’ll freak out, even if no-one laughs at you. You’ll have to speak maybe a hundred times before you feel okay. And then the first time people don’t listen, or seem bored, or openly laugh at you, you’ll freak out again. But if you keep it up, eventually you get used to those kinds of reactions too. You realise that even though some people looked bored, others still thanked you for your talk. And either way, you went home and your family still loved you. And even if they didn’t, the electricity is still on and there’s food in your cupboard. Public speaking did not cause you to die. Keep it up, and your fear will reduce.
5. Pick your battles. Just because your fear is irrational, doesn’t mean you have to get rid of it. Choose to work on fears that are stopping you from achieving a goal – that stand in the way of a good relationship, or are preventing you from advancing in your career. That way, it’s worthwhile going to the effort and discomfort of getting rid of the fear.
So now you know what your fear is, and hopefully you've got some new ideas about how to manage it. Let me know in the comments what scares you most, and your top tip for overcoming fear.
If you can't seem to overcome your fear, no matter what you do, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Contact me for a confidential assessment of how I may be able to help you move past your fears. We can even work together from the comfort of your own home. Email email@example.com for more information.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.