Fear - fight it or flow with it?
It doesn’t matter who you are - we all know what it is like to experience fear. It can come in many guises from the sudden jab of fear that stops us in our tracks to the more subtle underlying discomfort that hangs around when we feel anxious about something. Fear pulls our attention to tell us that we are under some kind of threat and it can be an uncomfortable feeling. But that is all it is – it is a feeling.
Fear is a fundamental survival instinct that is extremely important and yet it is something that we quite often try and avoid and has lots of negative connotations. Throughout history those who have apparently acted without fear are held up with admiration and as exhibiting aspirational behavior.
Individuals such as Alexander the Great, Elizabeth I and Nelson Mandela were all extraordinary in their endeavors and could be described as ‘fearless’. Perhaps more accurately however, they went beyond the norm of human achievement because they did what they did despite their fear. They believed that if their worst fears came to pass they were prepared to cope with the consequences, which could be considered a form of confidence.
Perhaps it is accepting fear as a natural part of our existence and learning how to respond to it in a way that we find acceptable that might serve us better than avoidance.
Research has allowed us to understand the underlying mechanisms of how we experience fear and we are all fairly familiar with the account of the ‘flight or flight’ response.
In brief, when confronted with a challenging situation our body undergoes a physical change. We perceive a threat in our environment, which causes the brain to fire the stress response, which leads to a whole range of physiological changes in the body. We are not aware of many of these changes such as the thickening of our blood due to cortisol release, the liver releasing extra sugar for energy or the slowing of our digestion. We may be more conscious of our heart beating faster, muscles tensing, an inability to think straight and our mouth going dry.
In today’s world it has been suggested that the stress response is being overused which is leaving people feeling exhausted and like they are not in control of their lives.
It is therefore no wonder, that in this hectic world there is a thirst to relieve the pressure and it explains the proliferation of people seeking respite in practices such as mindfulness and yoga. The principles of mindfulness have been around for thousands of years but the modern version is being eagerly consumed both by individuals and corporations.
In relation to feelings such as fear, mindfulness tells us that we can learn to stop fighting it. Fear is a fierce enemy and trying to deny, squash or control it can be extremely difficult. Perhaps this is because it is ultimately making an appearance to try and protect us and will therefore do whatever it takes to keep us from harm. Whatever the reason, mindfulness suggests that rather than trying to change or control how we feel we would do better to be curious about it. Accept the situation and try and investigate it in a detached way. This is done by considering where exactly any fear may be manifesting itself in the body and what the feeling is like.
In addition, rather than fight fear we could perhaps try and befriend it by understanding its motivation to protect us. ‘I am very grateful for your concern but despite your presence I really need to do what I’ve got to do’.
In society we see fear as weakness, which can mean that when we feel it we immediately start to negatively judge ourselves or even try to deny its presence. By accepting the experience for what it is we are actually being more honest with ourselves which can be a freedom in itself.
We can also feel fear about feeling fear. This can lead you to live a very safe existence of avoidance. This is self-defeating because fear is not something that can be completely avoided. It will inevitably appear at some point but avoidance can also lead to other emotions that can be uncomfortable such as frustration and boredom. If we were not fearful of feeling fear we might be better placed to take advantage of the richness that life has to offer.
If we are not facing the predators our ancestors had to contend with anymore, what are we so scared of? In the modern age personal failure can be viewed as seriously as a death threat. The threat to our self-esteem and subsequently our identity seems like it could send us out into an oblivion from which we might never emerge again.
When acting on stage in the past, I found myself on a couple of occasions standing in the wings with an immense feeling of dread and impending doom as the cue line for my entrance drew ever closer. What was going to happen when I stepped out? My mind was creating some very imaginative and as far as my body was concerned, life threatening scenarios!
There is no doubt that when things don’t go to plan it can be a very painful experience. However, what if you decided that you could cope with a bit of failure because you felt it might be worth taking some risks, would that placate the fear a little. In coaching there is an emphasis on what you learn through failure or phrased another way ‘not achieving what you wanted’. Most successful people say that they have learnt far more through their failures than their successes.
If you start to engage with fear in a curious way you might feel more able to cope when it makes an unwanted appearance. Curiosity takes you from the victim to the detective about what is happening and helps centre you to gain more perspective on a situation. We will always want to have the ‘flight or fight’ response but mainly when it is an appropriate response to the current situation. By gradually building our confidence around how we deal with fear we will be able to handle difficult situations better, step out of our comfort zones and strengthen our resilience which will naturally have exponential positive effects in many areas of our lives.