Fear is one of those emotions that gets a bad rap, In our society fear is often identified as a weakness. We even have slurs for people who we deem scared or fearful: sissy (or worse), wuss, scaredy cat or wimp. However, fear often lies beneath other more acceptable emotional states like grieving, feeling anxious or being angry.
Why Do We Have Fear?
Fear is a natural, primal response to a perceived threat. According to Merriam Webster fear is:
“an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”
Way back in the day, when we were being chased by lions or other predators, our fear kept us on our toes, ready to fight or flee. Fear kept us safe. And fear still keeps us safe. When we sense a threat, we guard ourselves both physically and emotionally. The problems come when we live with fear as a constant companion, and it creeps into how we manage our everyday life.
Fear In Modern Life
Early childhood trauma, childhood emotional neglect, sexual abuse or assault, and physically and/or emotionally abusive relationships can all manifest themselves in a deeply held sense that you’re not safe. Your mind and body want to protect you so they’re ready for danger all the time.
This constant underlying level of fear can make even mundane tasks seems scary or dangerous.
I know that fear has kept me from exploring new opportunities or opening myself up in new relationships. There were times when I even found it difficult to make phone calls because it didn’t feel safe. Because of my fears, I often felt stuck, lonely, afraid, disconnected and isolated. My own therapy has helped me to understand how my fears keep me from connecting with others and myself.
How Fear Shows Up
Because fear often lurks below the surface of our consciousness, it can show up in many different ways, and we don’t often recognize it for what it is. Here are a few ways that fear can present itself:
- Anxiety — This is the fear of situations and things that are uncertain or that you feel you can’t control.
- Social Anxiety — This is the fear that others are judging you. You worry that you might embarrass yourself.
- Grief — This can include fear of the future, fear of death and fear of being alone.
- Fear of rejection — This can keep you from opening yourself up to others.
- Fear of abandonment — You might make you cling to those you love because you worry they will leave you.
- Anger — Anger can mask fear. For some people it’s easier to feel angry than it is to feel scared.
- Fear of failure — This keeps you from trying new things.
No matter how fear shows up in your life, it can leave you feeling anxious, depressed, stressed and stuck.
Overcoming Fear Might Not Be The Answer
Most people manage their fear by avoiding the things they’re afraid of. If you worry about being judged by others, you avoid places where you might meet new people. If you’re afraid of rejection, you avoid opening yourself up to others. If you’re afraid you’ll be abandoned, you avoid confrontation, and you often put others’ needs before your own. If you’re grieving, you might fear you’ll never get over it, and you tell yourself it’s time to move on. If you’re scared of being emotionally hurt, you might lash out in anger to avoid feeling that pain.
The problem with using avoidance to manage your fears is that it’s only temporary relief. Ultimately, avoiding situations that make you fearful can leave you feeling anxious or depressed because you want to overcome your fears. You want to change, but you can’t do so if you constantly avoiding what you fear. Avoiding your fears makes you feel stuck where you are, disconnected from those you love and care for, and worrying that maybe there’s something wrong with you.
Facing Fear With Compassion
It’s not possible, or even desirable, to overcome fear completely. If we did, we would no longer sense real danger, and knowing when to protect yourself is a valuable tool for survival. What we can do is learn to how live with our fears.
Being afraid can be physically and emotionally uncomfortable. You sweat. Your heart rate increases. Breathing becomes shallow. It can be hard to swallow. Your stomach or head might ache and you might begin to shake. All of these bodily sensations alert you to possible danger ahead. And then there’s your brain. It’s probably telling you to get away from whatever it is you’re fearful of. Although your body and mind are telling you to run away from or avoid the scary things, research tells us that the best thing we can do (when there is no actual danger) is to be open and curious about our fears.
Now I get that you’re probably saying that leaning into your fear is the last thing you want to do! But if you allow your fear to exist, if acknowledge it, if you’re open it and willing to explore what your fear wants you to know with compassion, it can actually reduce the fear response. Sounds crazy, right?
An Exercise To Help You Manage Fear
Here’s an exercise you can try the next time fear is keeping you from living your life fully:
If you find you’re avoiding something because the idea of it makes you uncomfortable, find a quiet place and really tune into your body.
What physical sensations do you notice?
- Is your chest tight?
- Are your breaths shallow and quick?
- Can you feel your heart racing?
- Are sweating a little
- Does your throat feel constricted?
Accept whatever sensations you experience. Take a few slow deep breaths. Breathe into any tension you might feel in your body, and imagine the tension melting away as you breathe out.
Now check in with what’s going on in your head.
What are you telling yourself? Are you…
- Worried you’ll embarrass yourself?
- Worried that others will be judging you?
- Afraid you’ll make a mistake, or be rejected?
- Worried that by feeling your fear you’ll get sucked into it or that feeling your fear will make it worse?
I want you to acknowledge all those uncomfortable thoughts. You can say to yourself, “Wow, I’m really scared and struggling right now.” Sometimes it can help to place a hand on your heart and say, “This is so hard. I’m so afraid to ______.” (You fill in the blank.) Try to hold your fear with compassion.
Take some more time to check in with your body once again. Notice if any of the physical sensations have changed. Are they more intense? Have they lessened? If you’re still feeling the strong physical presence of fear, take a few more deep breaths, breathing into tension and imagining the edges of that tension softening just a little.
Now, imagine that your fear is there in the room with you. What does it look like? What color and shape is it? If you have the supplies on hand, draw a picture of it. If not, create a mental picture of the fear.
Get Curious About Fear
Once you have a clear sense of how the fear feels and looks, ask it if it would be willing to let you get closer. Ask it if it’s willing to let you be curious about why it’s showing up. If it feels safe, ask the fear what its worries are and what it wants you to know. Often, our fear wants to protect us, to keep us safe. Maybe it’s worried that you’ll be hurt and wants you to stay at home so you’ll never be hurt again. Maybe it’s worried that you’ll be overwhelmed by grief, and so it wants you to stop thinking about it and move on.
If you can, thank your fear for wanting to protect you. Acknowledge that it’s kept you safe, but that now it’s time for it to step back and let you move forward, so you can take some chances and feel your feelings. When you can appreciate and feel gratitude for your fear and how it’s protected you all these years, it can open up space inside you and calm your body.
It might be too hard to be curious about your fear because it still doesn’t feel safe. If you’re not ready to investigate your fear, that’s OK. Instead, I want you to ask your fear if you can just sit with it for a bit. Allow the fear to be present. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Notice where you feel it in your body and continue to offer yourself compassion.
Moving Forward And Facing Your Fear
If you’ve experienced childhood trauma or childhood emotional neglect and you want help managing your fears I’d love work with you on this journey. Please send me an email or call me at 410-340-8469.
Elizabeth Cush, LGPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.