There are times in our lives when we are faced with situations that we can’t move through, things that we can’t take on, or people that we can’t face because we are overcome with fear. Sometimes fear can be rational, like feeling scared about going into the forest without any wilderness training and potentially coming in contact with a dangerous animal, that’s a rational fear. Sometimes fear seems to be irrational, like being scared of “what ifs” (ex: what if we go to on vacation and there’s a hurricane, what if I go to an interview and they hate me). Recently, I’ve experienced very high anxiety, fear of failure, and fear of the future – both my personal future, but also the future of our earth and humanity. I have taken time to reflect on my anxiety and fear, figure out ways to cope and take care of myself as best as I can when I can’t cope. On my walk this morning I heard someone on social media say something along the lines of .. [why do we let fear run our lives? go find something that makes you scared or uncomfortable and do that thing over and over again because it will get easier…] and they were encouraging people to think about their feelings of fear and if they are holding them back from becoming better and doing something great. And it got me thinking. When did our society, who preaches “self care” and “following your heart” and “listening to your gut”, move away from those sermons to preach “just” pushing through fear to become a business hustler/boss babe etc?
If you’ve read my blog post on toxic positivity, you probably already know my stance on labelling feelings as “good” and “bad”, so let’s take a closer look at fear.
Fear is a natural, primitive human emotion, caused by the conscious or subconscious belief that something or someone is dangerous, or threatening to you. The universal trigger for fear is the threat of harm, whether this is real or imagined (rational or irrational fear). The threat might against for our physical, emotional or psychological wellbeing, and might be cause a set of physical and emotional symptoms. When it comes to symptoms, this is a highly individual response and may be different for different kinds of fear provoking threats – we know the classic “fight or flight” response, this might not just be when you are surprised by a bear while you’re camping, but for non physical threats as well. Think about if you see something alarming happening on your walk home from the store; do you talk a deep breath and approach the scene to confront someone or help someone? or do you walk quickly home in self preservation? Everyone reacts differently to fear provoking situations, and will deal with their emotions in different ways.
***It is also important to remember that fear is also a symptom of mental health conditions including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias and post traumatic stress disorder. In these cases, fear may be caused by “irrational” things to other people but are extremely real and frightening for the person experiencing it. In this situation, fear can often be so overwhelming that “working through the fear” is not a feasible option. *** … if a friend or family member is experiencing this kind of fear and is seeking advice/guidance to deal with this, reaching out to a therapist or a worker specializing in mental health support might be a good avenue.
When we are talking about fear that is not accompanied by an immediate threat to our physical safety, it is important to approach fear without judgement. Fear might seem like a “bad” emotion, but fear serves an important role in our lives, in keeping us safe. The function of fear and anxiety is to avoid or reduce harm, as it helps us cope with potential danger. For example, if you live without fear, you may get yourself into trouble – you may take physical risks that put you in danger of injury, or social risks that may get you fired or lose friends (ex: see the privileged white high up people tweeting racist comments and being upset/shocked when they lose their jobs because of it).
So what is the point of this blog post? We are talking about fear and how its painful but also good? Yes. We’re talking about how important it is to remember that people’s fear and anxieties are VALID and that sometimes, these feelings are important to pay attention to and to think about WHY we’re feeling this way.
I’m sure at some point during your life experience, someone has told you to listen to your gut instinct or your intuition. Often times however, we are told NOT to rely on intuition to make decisions, or perhaps to not even listen to our instincts (ex: think of a time you wanted to say no to something but peer pressure pushed you to do it). Whether you’re being pushed to do a dangerous stunt, to try a substance you might not feel right to take, or join an “opportunity” that you might feel unsure about… take a moment to listen to your gut.
Our “gut instinct” are real emotions. That fear, anxiety, unease… whatever that looks like, are not dumb emotional responses that we should be correcting or ignoring, they are another form of information processing. Research suggests that the brain is always comparing sensory information from your current experiences with past experiences in order to predict what might come or what should come next. This comparison gives the brain the opportunity prepare ourselves, as best as we can, to deal with situations as they come up. As you experience more in your life, your brain gathers more information to better inform your intuition. So as you grow and gain more life experience, your intuition will be stronger, and louder. Whether you are coming face to face with fear, or making a big decision in your personal life or in starting a new business, open your awareness to your intuition or gut instinct and reflect on why it might be sending you a message. Maybe you need to do a bit of research before that big decision, or maybe you should think about the pros and cons before doing something that sounds “scary”. Intuitive and analytic thinking (aka following your intuition and doing thinking logically) often happen together. For example, scientific research may start with an intuitive knowledge and then scientists form their hypotheses and validate them through rigorous research, testing and analysis. We can do this with fear too.
“when we are able to cope with the threat, this lessens or removes the fear.”
Next time we recognize a gut feeling, or a big ball of fear, take a look at what might be the threat that your brain is alerting you to. Is it something that you can cope with? Can you take a deep breath and do that thing that “makes you scared or uncomfortable” over and over and see it become easier? If you feel fear, reflect on what these feelings might mean to you and whether you need to do some research to be more informed before you make decisions, avoid certain situations, or create some strategies to get you through situations that scare you. Stress management techniques like deep breathing and visualization, cognitive mindfulness where you are replacing negative thoughts with more helpful ones, coming up with strategies like using fidgets, listening to music during a scary thing etc, or getting talking to people in your life or a therapist can be helpful to help you overcome or cope with fear.
At the camp I volunteer at, the number one rule in all of our programming is “challenge by choice”. The understanding is that the activities we do at camp might be brand new, challenging or scary, but the children have the choice whether they want to challenge themselves to try or not. Because while yes, we want to push out of our comfort zones to be able to learn and grow, we also want to create a safe space for ourselves. Because sometimes fear does run our lives; it tells us what is safe, what is not, and what we maybe need to do a little more research or learn some more about before we jump in. So think about your feelings of fear, reflect on what’s causing them and maybe on what you can do to help cope with them or move past them… but know that just because fear might hold you back sometimes, doesn’t mean you aren’t great and doesn’t mean you can’t improve in life if you want to. Challenge yourself to give yourself the choice to push past fear or to listen to your feelings and take the steps you need feel safe in whatever place you are in the moment.
“Is it rational to trust your gut instincts? A neuroscientist explains” https://theconversation.com/is-it-rational-to-trust-your-gut-feelings-a-neuroscientist-explains-95086