There’s no need to be afraid of fear. It is there to protect us. Fear can warn us of lurking dangers…and spur us to take action to improve our lives. Unfortunately, many people respond to fear in counterproductive ways. But it is possible to overcome problematic “fear styles.” Here’s how…
Problem Fear Styles
People who struggle to cope with fear are likely to recognize themselves in one or more of these fear styles. Knowing which of these styles applies to you can help you to take steps toward a more helpful, less debilitating fear response…
Fear Style: Safety first. When faced with something frightening, your immediate reaction is to retreat toward something that seems safe. The thoughts running through your head might include, I can’t or It’s too difficult for me. Because of this knee-jerk retreat-to-safety fear response, your life never seems to progress or improve.
Example: An exciting new job opportunity presents itself. Rather than give this option careful thought, you immediately think, I can’t do that, and you stick with the safe, comfortable job that you have had for years.
What to do: When you’re thinking, I can’t do it, think instead, I can do it…I can calm myself down, reflect on my choices and decide what to do. Make this your mantra. You may never be someone who dives into the deep end of the pool, but you are perfectly capable of walking slowly into the shallow end, then cautiously inching your way down to the deep end where you belong.
Fear Style: What if? Whenever you feel fear, a flood of “What if?” questions fill your mind. What if this goes wrong? What if they hate me? What if I fail? You don’t even bother to answer most or all of these questions—the questions themselves are enough to deter you from moving forward.
Example: Whenever you consider investing in stocks, you think, What if the stock market crashes? Then your savings remain in CDs and bank accounts, earning little or no interest.
What to do: Answer your “What if” questions. It’s leaving these questions unanswered that revs up your fears. Supply realistic, rational answers, and the fear will start to fade. If the first answer leads to additional “What ifs?” you should continue providing answers.
Example: If your fear is, What if I get lost? you might first answer, I’ll use my phone’s GPS. If that is met by the fear, What if the phone’s battery dies? then answer, I’ll bring a map, too.
Fear Style: Disastrous danger. This is similar to “What if?” but rather than think of unanswered questions, you imagine (or even visualize) catastrophic outcomes whenever you are doing something that frightens you. Some of these outcomes are implausible, but they seem real to you.
Example: When you think about taking a trip on an airplane, you picture the plane crashing. So you travel only when absolutely necessary.
What to do: Remind yourself that the chances of a disaster happening are similar to the chances of winning a mega-jackpot lottery. When was the last time you won the lottery? Also search for a relaxation technique that works for you, such as deep breathing, yoga or meditation.
Fear Style: Wishy-washy. You are so afraid of choosing the wrong response in frightening situations that you struggle to make any decision at all. When forced to make a decision, you inevitably second-guess it, torturing yourself by thinking, Maybe I should have chosen the other road.
Example: You are not certain which roofer to call to fix a dislodged shingle, so you don’t call any of them. What was a small problem eventually leads to major water damage.
What to do: Picture yourself standing at a fork in the road. You can choose the left fork…you can choose the right fork…or you can choose to continue standing at the crossroads forever. This mental image can help you see that not choosing essentially is making a choice—the choice to stay right where you are. Remind yourself that while you might not be certain where the two roads lead, choosing to move forward is almost always better than staying right where you are because you’re too frightened to make a choice.
Fear Style: Pop a pill. When you feel even a little anxious, your first response is to take prescription anxiety medication, consume alcohol or use illegal drugs. (Having one drink or taking prescription anxiety medication in prescribed dosages generally is not a problem. The problem is when numbing the mind becomes the standard response to fears and challenges.)
What to do: Tell yourself, I can do this without a pill (or a drink). Then take a deep breath, and think of a positive image—something that makes you feel calm and secure. Sign up for an adult-education course in relaxation or stress relief. If none of this allows you to face your fears without drugs or alcohol, it might be time to seek professional counseling or join a 12-step program.
More Steps for Facing Fear
These additional steps can help overcome any unproductive fear style…
1. Talk to yourself calmly. When you are afraid, fear takes control of what you say, what you think and what you do. If you can reclaim control of any one of these three things, it will become much easier to reclaim the other two.
Talk tends to be the easiest to reclaim. When you think negative phrases such as, I can’t do it or Oh my gosh, this is going to be horrible, immediately respond with comforting, positive phrases such as, It’s not as bad as I think it is. It never is…I’ll get through it. I always do…I can handle this…or It will be OK. Some people even find it helpful to speak aggressively to fear itself, telling it to Get out of my life! I’ve got stuff to do!
Backup plan: If you cannot talk to yourself calmly, engage in an activity that tends to make you calm. That might be sitting in a comfortable spot with a magazine and a cup of tea…doing yoga…watching a movie…walking outside…or chatting with someone who has a calm demeanor.
2. Reflect on what you could do to improve your situation. Don’t worry about actually doing any of these things yet. And don’t worry if you can’t think of anything that will make everything completely fine. Just jot down ideas and options that might make things seem at least a little more hopeful or secure than they seem right now.
Example: If you are worried about whether you have sufficient retirement savings, you might list ways that you could trim expenses…bring in some income during retirement…or tap the equity in your home.
Next, review this list and focus on the idea that you would like to pursue. This might be the idea that seems like it would help the most or the idea that seems most within your abilities to achieve. Don’t get bogged down in worrying about which is the absolute best option—just pick one that you believe holds some promise. Moving forward with even the second- or third-best solution is preferable to not moving forward at all. If nothing else, settling on a path forward will help you regain a sense of control over your situation, a crucial step in overcoming fear.
Helpful: If you are someone who struggles with what to do to move forward in the face of fear, reassure yourself that the option you choose does not need to be a final decision. If you later discover that what you decided isn’t working as well as you expected, you can change course. If you still can’t move forward, explain your options to a trusted friend and ask for help making the decision.
3. Take the action you selected in step two. It is useful to think of “take action” as a completely separate step from “reflect on an action,” discussed above. Some people who struggle to respond productively to fear have no trouble thinking up appropriate responses, but they don’t put those plans into action. If you follow the steps here, by the time you get to the “take action” stage, you’re halfway home, creating a sense of momentum that can push you forward.
Example: If you decided to bring in some income to quell retirement savings fears, you might take action by reaching out to contacts at your former employer or in your former field to see if any of them could hire you on a part-time freelance basis.
4. When fear sneaks back in, dismiss it by thinking, That’s just my fear talking not my reality. Fear almost certainly will stop in for a visit during this process. Bleak thoughts will sneak into your mind…dark words will slip out of your mouth. This is perfectly normal and need not create a major problem—as long as you dismiss the fear before it takes up full-time residence in your mind.
Backup plan: If you cannot quickly dismiss fear with the phrase above, repeat step one—talk to yourself calmly. Also, spend some time each day doing things that you know you do well—even if those things are completely unrelated to the situation currently causing you fear. Doing things that you know you do well increases your appreciation for who you are and what you have to offer the world. The sense of confidence that this fosters in one part of your life can gradually increase your overall confidence level, improving your ability to face fears wherever and whenever they intrude on your life.