Have you ever gotten so caught up in fear that you reacted without thinking and ended up actually causing a bad thing to happen, that never would have happened, if only you had just been able to get a grip on your emotions? Fear can distort your perception of reality as fast as standing in front of a Fun House mirror. If not handled properly, fear can lead you to make extremely poor decisions.
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Biologically designed to keep you alive, fear triggers a flight or fight response to a perceived threat of something bad that hasn’t happened yet, but which we imagine might be about to happen. Once a fear is triggered, your mind’s sole goal is to either get away from or eliminate that which is triggering the fear. Thus, the consequences of fear are either tears or anger. Either we retreat to hide as quickly as possible, or we attack in an effort to disable or even kill the threat. Giving in to this blind drive to eliminate the threat is what can get you into deep trouble, because all too often, the perceived threat isn’t real or is grossly distorted.
While certain fears are instinctual, such as fear of loud noises or heights, most of your fears are learned. You can’t trigger fear by just telling yourself, or someone else, to be afraid. You can’t make yourself feel it. Reacting to a perceived threat is a psychological reflex built up over time. Fear is built on actual direct life experiences collected as we age, but also by imagining a painful experience, based on what you have observed others suffer or what you’ve been told. If you’ve heard or read ghost stories or seen scary movies, you don’t have to actually see a ghost to be afraid there might be one lurking in the dark. If you’ve heard countless stories of the high divorce rate and infidelity, you don’t have to have caught your spouse cheating to be afraid that they are. If you know stories of people who’ve had the wrong body part operated on, you don’t have to have been sick a day in your life to be afraid to go to a hospital. Ultimately, fear is all in your head, made up of both actual memories and imagined feelings or predictions stored in your mental closet there to protect you from harm.
Handling fear effectively, though, requires being able to separate a real threat from imagined. If fear is all about getting you away from or eliminating a painful event before it happens, then being able to correctly anticipate a thing, situation, or person as a threat is essential to your survival. But what if the conditioning that went into creating that fear is distorted? What if you are merely projecting a pain from your past onto the present? What if the facts aren’t as you imagine them to be? What if the perceived threat is a fallacy, a prejudice, a psychological shadow based on ignorance or misinformation? What if the fear is not fear at all, but your own insecurity and feelings of inadequacy?
There are things you can do to help avoid getting swept away by fear. First, learn everything you can about the thing, the situation, or the person you fear. Uncertainty is a huge part of what triggers fear. Next, try what is called exposure therapy, also known as facing your fears. Only by exposing yourself to the threat in a safe controlled manner can you begin to see things as they truly are, not as you imagine they will be, and teach your brain to ease off the fear trigger. This is why we actually become less fearful as we mature past middle age. We’ve been exposed to enough threats to learn that much of what we imagined as harmful really wasn’t. Another fear de-conditioner is to hang out with people who aren’t afraid of what you’re afraid of who can help model being at ease with what frightens you. Fear is contagious, but so is calm and courage.
One way of dealing with fear that can actually cause you harm is to make yourself into a frightening figure as a way to intimidate others into staying away from you. The misconception is that if you can make yourself scarier than that which scares you, you’ll be safe. The problem with this, though, is that you become a target. No one wants to live in fear. Sooner or later, unrelenting fear drives a person to eliminate that which causes them fear. If you actually work at trying to intimidate others, the more people who fear you, the more you will have to fear from them.
So, before you find yourself blindly reacting to a fearful situation, don’t think naked! Consider taking time now, while things are calm and safe, to inventory the memories, stories, beliefs and perceptions you have hanging about in your mental closet that you find fearful. What can you do to make sure that you’re not reacting to a threat where one doesn’t actually exist?