“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie.
Fear is one of the most powerful and most destructive emotions that has ever existed.
Fear of failure in business prevents us from taking risks and making profitable business decisions. Fear of poverty keeps us at a job that we dislike. Fear of rejection does not let us ask out a person that we like. Fear of criticism turns us into the prisoners of someone else’s opinions and prevents from following our dreams. Fear of success holds us back from making money and cuts short our professional career. Fear of losing a person that we love poisons our relationships and pushes the person that we love further away from us.
Psychologists divide fears into 4 main categories:
1. Imaginary fears.
About 90% of all our fears are imaginary, meaning we feel scared or worried even if there is no real threatening situation in the environment which could cause fear. The irrational nature of imaginary fears makes them highly persistent and very destructive to our health and well-being. As there is no real cause that can be explained or eliminated, our mind continues to look for the signs of danger, even if there are none. Taken to the extreme, irrational and unnatural fears turn into phobias.
Solution: Fears that have no objective reality should be recognized for what they are – imaginary.
Refuse to dwell on your negative thoughts that lead nowhere. Your imaginary fear in this case is not a rational anxiety backed by realistic risks – just our imagination playing cruel games with us.
There are many effective ways to distract yourself every time disturbing “what if…” thoughts pop into your mind.
What works great for me is meditation or a prayer. It calms my mind, and gives me a feeling that God and higher powers are watching over me and protecting me from harm. If it does not work for you try taking a long walk, doing physical exercise, cooking or fully concentrating your mind on a task that you like to do.
2. Projected or displaced fears.
The difference between imaginary and projected fears is that projected fears are triggered by negative past experience, while imaginary fears exist only in our imagination. Projected fears are still considered irrational, because the current situation holds no signs of real danger. For example, a person who has been in a serious car accident may develop a fear of driving. Just sitting in a car may trigger unpleasant memories and inner terror.
Another example of displaced fear may be a woman, who has a hard time opening up and trusting men, because of her overly-abusive father.
How to tell if your fear is displaced?
A sure sign that you are projecting an unresolved fear from the past onto a present situation is when your emotional reaction is much stronger than the actual situation requires (we are overreacting).
Solution: Overcoming displaced fears from the past usually takes time and very often professional help, because they are often unconditioned and subconscious.
3. Conditioned of learned fears.
Conditioned fear is a special built-in mechanism, which helps us learn to fear new stimuli. It is actually a primitive form of learning in which a sign of imminent danger is associated with a particular neutral context.
Do you remember Ivan Pavlov’s famous “Drooling dog” experiment also known as classical conditioning? While Pavlov was studying digestive processes in dogs, he noticed a strange thing – every time his assistant entered the room the dog would start to salivate. Pavlov assumed that dog’s obvious excitement for the assistant was somehow linked to the fact that he brought food to the animals during the trials. To check his theory Pavlov first rang a bell and a few seconds later introduced food to a dog. In the dog’s mind the link between the sound of the bell and food was soon created. After a few more trials it was enough to ring the bell to make the dog drool.
You may be wondering what does it have to do with fear? Everything!
Let’s say your mother had an irrational fear of insects. Every time she saw a spider, she would scream at the top of her lungs to alert every possible person in the county that the “scary thing” was approaching and then she would run away as fast as she could. Soon you might start to associate “neutral stimuli” – spider with danger. That is how our conditioned fears are developed.
Solution: The best way to deal with learned fears is to de-condition yourself or to learn to associate pleasant memory with the thing that you fear. At the end you might come to love your conditioned fear stimuli (e.g. spiders), but at least you will learn to tolerate them. 🙂
4. Real fears.
Real fear is the only one that you should pay attention to. It is based on common sense and real life observations. Rational fear prevents us from taking unneeded risks and helps us to take precautions to avoid danger. For example, we fasten our seatbelts before we start driving, we make sure that our doors are locked before we leave the house, we buy health insurance, and we do not take a walk at night in an unsafe neighborhood. Even though our actions are driven by fear of loss, in this case it is a sign of maturity and awareness.
Solution: When it comes to real fear, there are two modes of action. The first one is instinctive – “fight” or “flight” from the source of danger. This reaction is triggered automatically every time we face a real life-threatening danger (a mugger or a huge angry dog running towards us). The second way to react to a dangerous situation is rational. This is how we “ideally” are supposed to act when we have to deal with a hidden danger like disease, poverty, or failure.
This is why the first step in any situation that causes fear is to take a deep breath and calm the mind. The second step is to get the facts and analyze the situation rationally. To do that you need to face you fear. This is probably the hardest part, because our natural response is to avoid what we are afraid of. However, as soon as the problem is stated, our brain stops perceiving it as “the end of the world” and starts looking for the best possible course of action.
The most powerful weapon that can defeat fear is understanding!