Fear is something we encounter on a frequent basis. We experience it in different ways each and every day, and we develop different strategies for dealing with this difficult sensation. Fear, anxiety, doubt, apprehension, panic, unease, worry — they are all interrelated and connected. However, what is fear?
How can we define it? More importantly, how can we conquer it to live freer, happier, more fulfilling lives?
What Is Fear? The Challenge of Defining the Abstract
The problem with tackling the question, ‘what is fear?’, lies in fear’s inherent ability to transmute and transform depending on the circumstances.
Everyone experiences fear in different ways. Everyone is afraid of different things. It affects us differently, we experience it differently, and it never wears the same mask twice.
So, what is fear? Well, fear could be said to be a collection of sensations and perceptions that tell us that something is threatening.
What you may find threatening may not be what your friend, sibling, or partner finds threatening. The true inherent danger of fear is its ability to play with our emotions and challenge our perceptions.
A working definition of fear
When trying to establish what fear is, it may first be helpful to define what fear is not.
Fear is not a pleasant emotion. Fear is not comforting, nurturing, relaxing, or reassuring. What we all can agree on when it comes to fear is: it’s distressing. It’s uncomfortable; and much of the time that we’re in a state of fear, we’re simply seeking to navigate our way back out again.
So, what could our definition of fear be?
We might structure a definition of fear around the most common physical and emotional experiences of fear:
- Increased heart rate
- Sweaty palms
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Shortness of breath
- The feeling of apprehension or dread
- Feeling of powerlessness
- The feeling of despair or hopelessness
Thrill-seeking and the role fear plays
There are situations in which fear is a welcomed experience. Horror movies seek to elicit a fearful or frightened reaction. Haunted houses and theme parks around Halloween try to scare and provoke us.
If fear is so unpleasant, why do some people seek it out?
Fear, under these circumstances, is controlled. While we may feel frightened walking through a haunted house, our subconscious understands that under the facade of creaking staircases and groaning pipes, all is well. We’re still relatively safe, even if we’re actively being tricked into thinking otherwise.
However, when true fear takes hold, it’s a different story. True and genuine fear has the ability to derail our lives.
How to Overcome Fear
Now that we’ve answered the question, “what is fear?” it’s time to figure out how to overcome it.
Overcoming fear isn’t easy. The very experience of fear seeks to debilitate and immobilize us. We freeze, tense up, and go rigid. Whether the threat is physical, cognitive, or emotional, we may feel our hearts begin to pound in our chest. Our throat closes up. A chill runs down our spine.
How do we step away from the grip of fear? How do we move past the difficult experience of anxiety and unease to continue moving forward?
Here are some practical tips and tricks for overcoming fear:
1. Stay present
Many times, fear can run away with us. We imagine the worst and begin to panic.
We’re plagued by a series of what if? questions that seem to get subsequently more catastrophic.
The best way to halt these runaway fears is to confront them with present moment awareness. Much of the power fear holds over us exists entirely in the abstract. We project horrific scenarios into our future and panic.
Instead, the next time you feel yourself in the grips of anxiety, try to identify the worry that’s plaguing you, and then, address the concern in a tangible, concrete way in the present moment.
Perhaps you’re anxious about an upcoming meeting at work. You may be envisioning all sorts of terrible outcomes, imagining ten different ways the day could go wrong.
Instead, stay aware and grounded in the present moment. Things could go wrong, but there’s nothing you can do about it at this time. You’re investing a whole lot of energy into something you have no control over.
You’d be surprised by how many of our fearful thoughts are rooted in future projections. So, work to keep yourself grounded in the present moment. It’s not easy, but it is effective.
2. Be prepared
Fear can immobilize us, but it can also instigate a lot of nervous energy. Before we know it, we’re positively buzzing with pent-up anxiety, and sitting still and staying focused seems next to impossible.
A good strategy to combat this is to get busy. Specifically: do something that will help you prepare for or take care of the thing you’re worried about.
If you’re nervous about an upcoming event, see what you can do now to prepare for it. Perhaps you could make arrangements for transportation, or decide what you’re going to wear to alleviate some of the stress of the day.
The better prepared you are, the more confident you’ll feel. You’ll also receive a sense of accomplishment for completing a task that’s helping you stay organized and on top of your to-do list.
3. Share your fears
Talking about what’s irking us can really help alleviate the burden of anxiety. Find a trusted friend, partner, or confidant, and reveal the thing you’re scared of.
Do you have a long-time fear or phobia you’ve always kept to yourself? Perhaps now is the time to share it with someone. Don’t worry — everyone is afraid of something, and people are often quite receptive to helping others learn how to overcome fear.
Tell someone you trust and care for what you’re afraid of. Giving your fear a name will help dilute its power over you.
4. Carefully confront your fear
This is most effective for phobias, and should only be undertaken in a controlled environment with people you trust.
Confronting the thing you’re most frightened of can have an empowering effect; but this must be done carefully, slowly, and in small doses.
For example, if you have a fear of snakes, sticking your arm into a tank with a python in it might not be a great choice. Perhaps, however, a practical first step would be sitting in a room with a snake safely confined to its terrarium. Then, perhaps you can try being in the same room with a snake out of its tank, held by its handler.
Bit by bit, you can work toward confronting your fears. Take small, controlled actions that you feel comfortable with. As soon as you’ve had enough, step away, breathe, and regain your composure.
Only do what feels right at the moment. Don’t force it, and don’t push yourself too far. Little by little, you will be able to dismantle your fear and put it to rest.
5. Overcoming fear with mindfulness
This ties into the strategy of staying in the present moment, but takes things a step further.
One of the most debilitating things about fear is its ability to affect our physiology. Our pulse quickens, our bodies shake, and we may have difficulty breathing.
One way to combat the challenging physical symptoms of fear is with mindfulness. Overcoming fear with this strategy can be a skill you practice and hone for many years to come.
Mindful breathing can keep us rooted in the present moment. Staying present helps us feel the experience of fear without being carried away by it.
The next time you’re undergoing great stress, anxiety, or tension, try taking a few mindful breaths. You don’t need to force the breath or control it in any way. Simply focus on what it feels like to breathe at that moment.
Maybe your breath is short and shallow. That’s okay. Maybe your breath is shaky and uneven. That’s okay too. Whatever is happening in your body, let it happen. Simply observe the sensations as they rise and fall, including the breath.
Observing physical bodily sensations helps dilute some of the overwhelming power they exert over us. When we focus on the tightness in our chests that makes it difficult to breathe, we may find that our lungs feel freer and can expand more fully. When we listen to the racing pulse of our heart, we may find it begins to slow.
Whatever is happening, allow it to happen with as much tolerance and acceptance as you can. By listening to the physical sensations of fear, they lose their sway over us.