Fear and Beginning to Overcome it
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right”
Henry Ford (Founder of the Ford Motor Company, 1891-1945).
Fear is something we all experience at certain times or during particular situations in our lives. It is often regarded as the survival emotion, because when we are confronted with a fearful situation, the autonomous nervous system (ANS) kicks in and signals to our whole body (via a series of biochemical changes), that we are in imminent danger and need to be prepared to either fight or flight our way out of there. This innate mechanism is thought to have developed during evolutionary times, when the threat of danger was very prominent and often deadly. Likewise, even in today’s modern world, when we are faced with extreme danger or harm, this natural response can serve us well.
Fear is however, an extremely complex process and there may be times when we perceive a situation we are either currently in or about to face to be more dangerous than it actually is and the fear response kicks in anyway. Although this innate biochemical response is universal, the emotional response of fear can be unique to us, which is why as individuals, we can fear different things. Most of our fears develop from learnt experiences, either from past traumatic events or from observational learning via others. For example, if an individual felt scared after becoming trapped in a lift, they may subsequently develop a fear of lifts and/or enclosed spaces. Or a child may develop a fear of spiders, believing them to be harmful or dangerous, if they have grown up watching a parent repel at the sight of them.
In addition to the physiological changes the fear triggers in us (the fight and flight response), after a while we learn to associate the fear with negative emotions. These physiological and perceptual changes, make us feel unsafe, so, when we think of it from this perspective, it makes complete sense that we would want to avoid the fear. It is innate in us to want to feel secure, therefore the avoidance of our fears serves us well, because it enables us to feel safe and therefore, emotionally stable.
Nevertheless, this avoidance is only a maladaptive way of coping. Most of us, are essentially avoiding situations that are not actually physically harmful, there are no real threats to our lives or our safety. Yet perceptually we are locked in. Many of our fears have been created in our own minds, fed by our own imaginations. They continually derail us and hold us back from opportunities, experiences or from achieving our true potential. The more we avoid our fears, the more we want to avoid them and thus, our fears grow.
“The fear of facing your fears is harder to overcome than facing the fear itself”
As a student at university, this quote resonated with me so much. My fear of public speaking had been with me all my life and I had spent many years avoiding situations which would put me in the spotlight. Despite studying the mechanisms of fear and knowing, the only way I would overcome my fear of public speaking, was to face it, I still wasn’t in any rush! As a Masters student my life changed dramatically, there was no gentle approach and no room for excuses. Presenting was seen as a fundamental aspect of passing the course and if I wanted to pass, I needed to get over it!
A few weeks into the first summer term, there I was standing at the front of the class waiting to do a presentation. I had been dreading this moment for days, knowing, unless I had quit the course, there really wasn’t anywhere to escape.
I was the last student to present that day, which I was soon to learn, really wasn’t the best option! In the four hours I had waited to for my turn to present, I had continually fretted and managed to convince myself my presentation was nowhere near as impressive as those of my peers. As I got to the front of the class, my heart was in my stomach, eagerly trying to pound its way out of my body. As I stood there, trying desperately to hold onto my presentation notes, my hands were frantically shaking. I was terrified to speak because my lips were quivering so much and I knew if I opened my mouth at that point, all that would come out would be a stuttering, gibberish wreck. I could see my peers looking at me. I could tell they were all confused and wondering why, this normally socially confident woman, was standing there frozen!
It honestly felt like an eternity had passed, when my professor looked at me and asked me if I was alright. She then asked me if I wanted to leave? I honestly couldn’t believe she was actually giving me a get out clause. This was music to my ears. I was standing there unable to speak, terrified out of my brains and she was actually handing me a free pass out of there. And trust me, it was tempting!
I remember shaking my head at her. Despite feeling terrified, I instinctively knew, from my years of study, that flight was not an option. I knew if I was ever to conquer my fear of public speaking, I had to find a way to push myself through it and to present to the class. By that point, I no longer cared how my presentation compared to those of my peers, I just knew I needed to somehow get through it.
The strangest thing happened to me that day. As I started speaking, as I started to read my presentation to the class, I began to relax. I literally remember, feeling my body fall into it. After a few minutes, I wasn’t shaking as much or stuttering anymore and I remember at the end of my presentation, as the class applauded, I felt a sense of elation. As I walked back to my seat, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt proud I had seen it through and had not taken up the opportunity to leave.
What I really learnt that day, and what went on to serve me well during the many following presentations of my subsequent years of study and beyond, was that my ‘fear’ of presenting publicly, had actually become more frightening than how it actually felt to be presenting publicly. By constantly telling myself I would be nervous, by constantly telling myself that I would probably make a fool of myself and by constantly telling myself my presentation probably wouldn’t be anywhere as interesting as those of my peers, I was feeding my fear. I wasn’t only keeping it alive, but I was allowing it to grow.
Now it may sound unbelievable when I tell you that from that day on, when it came to presenting or public speaking of any kind, I always volunteered to go first, and, not only did I volunteer to go first, but I went on to enjoy the experience. Like I said, something changed in me that day. It wasn’t that I no longer felt nervous, or that I had developed some sort of arrogance in my capabilities as a public speaker (far from it I can assure you!), but I had learnt that the fear hadn’t killed me that day. I had pushed through it, I had survived and my fear had weakened as a result. My ability to push through it had given me a sense of empowerment and a sense that I had actually gained back some control.
Now as I write this, I know not everyone will be able to face their fear quite as easily as I appeared to face mine, but the message I am really trying to get across, is that my fear became a limitation. I avoided it for so long that my expectation of it grew. My anticipation of how frightening it would feel to speak publicly, became so much greater than how I actually felt when I finally did speak publicly. I had faced my fear, I had survived and that had given me the confidence to face it again and again.
So, how do we go about overcoming our fears?
Well the only way we ever really overcome our fears is to face them. Remember the famous book “Feel the fear and do it anyway?”. Well, I appreciate how daunting it sounds, but the truth of the matter is, that avoiding your fears hasn’t actually worked up to now. Yes, it has enabled you to feel safe, but long-term it is only holding you back or preventing you from moving forward with your life. In the famous words of Albert Einstein “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”.
When we gradually face our fears, we allow our nervous system to slowly adjust to them and after a while, through a process known as habituation, our nervous system becomes less hyper-aroused. All the time we avoid our fears, we are preventing the process of habituation from occurring, adding greater layers to the fear and knocking our self-belief in our ability to conquer it in the process.
Now in writing this blog post, I am not by any means trying to undermine the powerful effect fear can have. I have seen first-hand, the detrimental impact it can have on the day to day functioning for some individuals and in such cases, professional help and support would certainly be advisable. However, if you would like to have a go at overcoming your fears in your own time, here are five introductory strategies which I have put together that might help you to begin the process.
1. Be aware of your thoughts
Our thoughts have a powerful impact on our subsequent emotions and behaviours, so a really useful first step is to try to notice any negative thoughts which run through your mind whenever you think about, or anticipate your fear. These thoughts are often self-defeating and they occur automatically as a result of us constantly repeating them to ourselves for long periods of time and never challenging them. Therefore, by identifying these negative thoughts and the impact they are having on your fear, you can start to assess them, understand their origins and begin to reframe them in a manner that is kinder to you. Now, negative thoughts don’t immediately fade away. This is especially true when you have convinced yourself for some time, that they are accurate (which has subsequently enabled you to avoid your fears, thus giving you a sense of safety), so be prepared to practice this and be persistent, as this stage may take a while to grasp.
Try to observe any physiological changes which may occur whenever you have a negative thought about your fear. Maybe your breath becomes more rapid, or your heart starts racing or perhaps you begin to feel dizzy. It can help to keep a journal of the negative thoughts and the associated physiological sensations that follow them.
What you may start to notice when you look back over your journal, is that what we tend to do when we think about, or we are confronted with our fears, is that we start to predict the future and, (here’s the important bit to note), when we predict the future, we tend to visualise it through a negative lens;
“My presentation is going to be an absolute disaster. I’m going to be so nervous, I will just end up making a fool of myself and then everyone will know how useless I am”.
Was it any wonder I was so scared of public speaking? Before I had even started, I had completely written myself off. I could already picture myself standing there looking the fool, whilst all my peers stood there judging me! In honesty, I actually had no evidence whatsoever that this was going to happen (my peers were in fact incredibly nice and very supportive people), but I had created this image in my mind and I had played it out so many times, that it had become real to me.
It can be really useful to explore these thoughts further. Do you have any previous evidence that these thoughts are true? Have they happened before? Or is it a case of ‘they might happen’ rather than ‘they will happen’? Even if they have happened previously, try to notice whether you are overgeneralising these thoughts. For example, if on one occasion you felt you may have said something wrong in a discussion or meeting, you may tell yourself “I’m not going to speak again because I ALWAYS say the wrong thing”.
Overgeneralising such as this is self-limiting and prevents us from ever moving forward. Then look back at the thoughts and think about any evidence you may have that disputes or weakens the thought?
Try to explore ways that you can reframe these thoughts so that they are kinder to you and supporting you in facing your fears, rather than further fuelling your anxieties;
“Ok so I’m feeling a bit nervous about my presentation today, but I have worked really hard on it and I’m ready to give it my all”.
Self-compassion and empathy are really important during this stage. If you find this difficult, think about what you would say to a family member or a friend in this situation. I guarantee, you will not have trouble finding a series of supportive statements for them, it just takes a bit of practice to apply these to yourself.
2. Visualise yourself facing the fear
When we anticipate or think about our fears, we often visualise the worst-case scenario. Now although the brain is an incredible organ, it can’t completely differentiate between an imagined or a real scenario. Therefore, visualising ourselves facing our fears with success, rather than imagining the worst, can be really helpful. It is important to make the visualisation realistic, therefore, think of the outcome you want to achieve when you think about overcoming your fears, then picture yourself doing it, whilst feeling calm, relaxed and in control. Again, as with the challenging of the negative thoughts stage, this visualisation technique may take a while to master, so stick with it. The more you visualise yourself facing your fears, the more you will start to believe it can happen for real.
3. Practice mindfulness breathing techniques
When we think about or face our fears, we centralise them within ourselves, and in the process, they become all consuming. As our automatic negative thoughts rush through our minds, our fight and flight kicks in, signalling to us that we are in danger and need to flee the situation as fast as we can. It is at this point, that mindfulness can serve us well. Mindfulness is the art of being present in the moment. It helps us to become consciously aware that the fear is present, which is an important step in enabling us to gain back some control.
When you begin to feel the physiological sensation of the fight and flight kick in, stop what you are doing and try to focus your attention on your breathing. Breathing is a powerful tool that we all have to hand and can be a really useful way to calm down and realign the whole body. If possible close your eyes and breath in slowly through your nose for the count of three and then breath out slowly through your mouth for the count of four. Repeat this several times, until your breathing starts to calm down and you begin to feel more relaxed. It can help to focus your attention on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation of the air through your nostrils. Don’t worry if your mind starts to wander back on the negative thoughts or on your racing heart etc. (remember this is what you’re used to doing in this situation), just refocus your attention back on your breathing. The more you practice this technique, the easier it will become.
4. Don’t beat yourself up
Overcoming our fears can be a difficult and lengthy process, therefore it’s really important to be kind to yourself during this time. If something doesn’t quite go to plan or you have a day when you feel you have gone backwards, go easy on yourself. Giving yourself a hard time or verbally critiquing yourself is self-destructive and will only feed your self-doubt in your ability to conquer your fear. Be kind to yourself and remember that although change is ultimately where we grow, it can also be incredibly scary, because if often involves the unknown or some element of risk.
5. Acknowledge your successes
It doesn’t matter how small your achievement is, acknowledging it and praising yourself is fundamentally important. By doing this we fuel our self-belief in our ability to continue, which increases our likelihood of succeeding. Any change in life is hard, therefore small gradual steps in the right direction allow us to slowly adjust to the new situation and gain confidence to continue on to the next step or stage.
Finally, take some time to reflect on the fact that most of the major accomplishments in your life you have achieved by overcoming some element of fear. Such as learning to ride a bike (what if I fall off?), learning to drive a car (what if I crash?), taking that exam (what if I fail?) and starting a new job (what if I don’t make friends?). Remind yourself that one way or another you have survived through all of these fears and with the right strategies, support and self-care, you have the potential to overcome many more.
“Fear has two meanings: ‘Forget Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Rise’. The choice is yours.”
Zig Ziglar (American author, 1926-2012)