The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

Fear is at the root of many emotional problems.

  • Fear paralyses; it introduces hesitation and doubt.
  • It creates inner panic; you lose your reason and sense of proportion.
  • Fear looks to the past; it replays images of failure, hurt and disappointment – a reminder that the past could repeat itself.
  • It de-motivates and sabotages self-esteem.
  • Fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You often get what you fear simply because you focus too much of your attention on it.

The irony is that fear is a natural response designed to protect you. It’s a warning, telling you to take care.

When you perceive yourself in danger, your unconscious brings about powerful physical changes. The hormonal glands give your body a shot of adrenaline, your heart beats faster, you breathe more rapidly, take in more oxygen, blood thickens and is diverted to the muscles to give them extra strength. This is the ‘fight or flight response’ – you’re ready for action, and that could be a great blessing. Many people have showed superhuman strength when faced with fear.

Misguided perceptions

The problem arises when the perception of danger is misguided. Many people suffer from unfounded fears; often they know they are irrational, but are unable to do anything about it. For instance, many people are terrified of house spiders, even though very few people have ever been harmed by one. Fear of balloons – the sort found at children’s parties – is widespread. I’ve also come across people terrified of red traffic lights, wheelbarrows, rubber gloves and even going to the toilet! And thousands are held back in their careers by a fear of speaking up at meetings or public speaking, even though it’s hardly life-threatening.

There are over three hundred terms for irrational fears of one sort or another (agoraphobia, claustrophobia, hydrophobia, arachnophobia etc.). What’s happening? These unfortunate individuals are being misled by their own senses. It probably happens to you too sometimes.

Have you ever taken a ride on a fairground simulator, one that promises you all the thrills and spills of a bob sleigh run, a speedboat, glider or Formula One car? Although you know you’re seated in a metal box which never leaves the ground, watching lights flickering on a screen, feeling your seat moving, it’s possible to feel sick with fear. But you’re not really in danger – your brain has merely been fooled into thinking you are.

Realise that, although many fears are instinctive, most are the result of conditioned responses. The perceived danger is not real or of such low probability that it’s not worth getting worked up about. Remember the mnemonic: False Expectations Appearing Real. Fear projects your mind into the future and focusses on what may go wrong. The extent of your fear is directly proportional to your pessimism.

Handling fear

The best way to deal with any kind of fear is to try and understand it. Recognize the fear as soon as it occurs. What’s causing it? Where is it coming from? What’s it trying to tell you?

One of the most debilitating fears is the fear of failure. If you go through life ruled by a fear of failing, failure is guaranteed. When things don’t work out, observe where you are going wrong, make corrections and try again. Don’t call it failure – call it ‘experience’ and learn from it.

Another common fear is the fear of rejection. People go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it. The only way to deal with rejection is to refuse to entertain and don’t allow it to undermine your confidence and self-belief. Other people’s rejection can only hurt you if you have first rejected yourself. Realise that nobody can please all the people all of the time.

Remember, many successful people have been rejected many times, including Colonel Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame), actor Sylvester Styllone (Rocky) (both of whom were turned down over 1,000 times), the Beatles, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Richard Branson.

All too often, as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously remarked, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

Thirty-odd years ago, Dr Susan Jeffers wrote a ground-breaking book called ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’. It’s a must read. Dr Jeffers taught us not to surrender to fear, but harness it. Focus on your goal not the fear, and remember courage is not the absence of fear, but being willing to proceed in spite of it.

©David Lawrence Preston, 27.1.18

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