How to be Fearless and Fear Less

Editor's note: This is a guest post from Susan Chambers of SAGE Editing and Research Services.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unjustified, unreasoning terror which paralyzes needed effort...”  (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1st Inaugural Address, 1933)

Did you know that 12% of Canadians (source: Canadian Mental Health Association) and 18% of American adults ages 18 and older are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in a given year (source: National Institute of Mental Health)  When you convert the abstract numbers to real people, these findings translate as a distressingly large number of individuals suffering the often debilitating impacts of fear and anxiety; health concerns, a sense of being overwhelmed and helpless, an inability to take action or make changes, and a reduced quality of life.  My guess is that it was in fact the side effects of overpowering fear, the “...nameless, unjustified, unreasoning terror which paralyzes needed effort...” rather than the emotion of fear itself that concerned Roosevelt, back in 1933.

According to an article in Psychology Today by Gordon Livingston (2009), a psychiatrist, the inaction that stems from excessive, irrational fears or fear-based thinking often shows up as a decision to live life from a “safe” position and not take risks, even if that means forsaking opportunities that might provide greater joy and expansiveness to one’s life.  But what are these fears—or perhaps more accurately, anxieties—that keep so many of us immobilized to some degree or another?  How are they triggered? And how do we overcome our fears or at least control them so they don’t take over and imprison our spirits and minds, leaving us depressed and further discouraged (a loss of heart)? Let’s start with human nature and the nature of fear.

Fear, what is it good for?

Fear is defined as the emotional response to an actual or perceived threat of immediate or imminent danger or pain.  The capacity to experience fear is part of human nature that has been hard-wired into us.  From an evolutionary perspective, fear served a valuable purpose in assuring our survival as a species.  When confronted with a threat to our survival, we did what was needed to avert or avoid the danger; we either ran (flight) or defended ourselves (fight) if there was a chance of overcoming our attacker. When it’s functioning normally, our friend fear serves us well when it comes to ensuring our continued survival.  An appropriate “dose” of fear stops most of us from taking fool-hardy chances that would endanger ourselves or others.  Used constructively, a little bit of fear or caution can help us to assess and manage any risks before going into a situation we’re not sure about.  (It’s called a calculated risk for good reason.) A sense of wariness or our good old “gut feelings” can give us a heads up about an impending threat or problem so we have time to either avert or minimize a potentially challenging situation—if we’re tuned into that quiet little voice and treat it with respect.

Where our memory recall of emotions is concerned, our brains don’t bother with linear time, nor do they distinguish between real and imaginary events.  This means we can endlessly replay past incidents that scared us and elicit the exact same feelings and physiological response two or twenty years later if we do not find a healthy way to process or neutralize the emotional charge attached to the episode. It means we can also take those same memories and start generalizing them to similar or future situations, with the unhappy result that we become increasingly fearful and avoid events, people or activities we perceive as threatening to our emotional well-being.

It turns out that fear and anxiety can also be learned and passed on to future generations.  According to Livingston (2009), children who grow up with parents who show a lot of anxiety or apprehensiveness, or who convey an exaggerated sense of the world as a dangerous place, are themselves more likely to develop unreasonable fears as they grow up.  T is easy to see how quickly successive generations within a family could experience generalized anxieties and fears but might not make the link as to how they came to be more anxious than their peers.  Yet knowing and understanding this information could potentially liberate any number of individuals from resigning themselves to a narrow life constrained by fear.

Livingston states that an overly fearful view of the world is also fueled in large measure by our media and how 24 hour news shows report both local and global events, and he points specifically to the emotional impact of news stories which “seem designed more to alarm than inform.”  The overall effect is that our news media seem to be infecting our society with anxiety and conditioning us to accept fear, and I would add helplessness, as normal emotional states.  We have, in essence, become a culture of fear—one in which, Livingston points out, we scare ourselves silly over phantom worries rather than using those fears to galvanize us into facing and resolving the real threats to our well-being.

If we can’t be fearless, we can always be courageous

We tend to equate bravery and courage with being fearless, but this is both unhelpful and inaccurate.  It’s unhelpful because it asks us to deny part of our emotional make-up and hardwiring, and achieve something that is not possible or even advisable.  It is an incorrect equation.  The very individuals we look to as exemplary role models of bravery or courage openly admit that they were not free of fear when they faced grave threats.  They simply kept going with their plan of action, in spite of feeling scared, because they were generally resolute in their decisions, knew the risks attached to what they were doing and in many cases (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela) believed that their actions served a larger cause for a greater good.  Here’s what General George S. Patton had to say about equating bravery with a lack of fear: “If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows no fear, I have never seen a brave man.  All men are frightened.  The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.”  Both Nelson Mandela and Mark Twain also observed that courage is about mastering or resisting fear, not the absence of fear.

But not all philosophers agree with the idea that we need to conquer or resist our fear.  According to J. Krishnamurti,

What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing

or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means watch it, learn

about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not

how to escape from it.”

Krishnamurti’s advice seems both counter-productive and counter-intuitive at first glance, yet it makes a lot of sense on further reflection.  What happens when we try to run away from something?  It usually follows us.  What happens if we try to resist or control something by force?  We exhaust ourselves or create conflict when we go into control mode.

We can decide that it’s okay to have fear—after all it is a part of the human condition—it doesn’t mean we have to define ourselves by our fear.  Who knows, maybe if we choose to just let our fear be and have compassion for it rather than revile it, if we sit with it, experience it, and learn from it, it may just lessen its hold on us more gracefully than if we struggle to conquer or vanquish our fears.  In any case, sitting quietly, observing and learning causes us considerably less suffering than the energy required for fight or flight and perhaps we will learn something valuable in the process.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with five strategies and short quotes for working with and through fear.  I’ve used these strategies at various times in my life and found them to be incredibly helpful.  May they inspire and encourage you to find the courage within yourself.

Five strategies for working with and through fear

1“Let the fear of a danger be a spur to prevent it; [s]he that fears not, gives the advantage to danger.” (Benjamin Disraeli)

Are you feeling wary about a situation or an individual that you interact with?  Or do you have a vague sense that something has changed ever so slightly, but not in a good way? Honour the little tugs of fear and the subtle perceptions you’re receiving.  Listen to them and what they say they’re based on.  Thank them for the heads up, figure out your plan to prevent or minimize the danger you’ve been warned of and proceed with appropriate caution. Talk them through with a trusted confidant or two; don’t dismiss your feelings just because others are maybe not as sensitive to subtle shifts, but consider their input as helpful information or facts that add to a balanced picture before you make a decision. Be observant to the subtleties in your interactions and your life and learn to appreciate your built in early warning system.  It’s there for a reason.

2.  “Listen to what you know instead of what you fear.” (Richard Bach)

If the fears are being driven by self-doubts about your abilities to succeed in realizing a dearly held dream (starting a business, expressing your creativity) and yet you know objectively that you have the skills or talent to follow through, talk to your doubts or self criticisms, ask them what purpose they think they are serving by holding you back through the use of fear.  If they can’t tell you anything helpful, ignore them and find another place within yourself that supports you, reminds you of your competencies, and encourages you to persist in your dreams.

3.  “The media... bear some responsibility for stoking our worry. ...many stories seem designed more to alarm than inform.”(Gordon Livingston, 2009)

If you find your fears are being shaped by mass media and the news, go on a news fast (Yes, that means online sources of news, too.).  Use the time to learn or relearn how to think critically and independently.  Learning to ask tough questions about the information we read or hear will strengthen your intellectual and emotional immunity to being manipulated, getting caught up in group-think or getting swept up by mass media produced moral panics.

4.  “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them (Andre Gide)

Do your fears and anxieties feel like they are monster sized and just as scary? Yes? We often give our fears far too much power by perceiving them to be much bigger than they really are, so shrink them down to size.  Draw your fears on a piece of paper, but keep them on the small side, and have fun making your fears seem as ridiculous and non-threatening as possible in your drawing.  Draw yourself standing tall—much taller than your fears—confident and empowered.  Keep the piece of paper where you can see it to remind you that you are bigger than your fears.

5.  “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable....” (Henry David Thoreau)

Make up a chant or song and sing it when you start feeling afraid.  Use the song to en-courage you—to awaken the courage that does exist within you.  I personally enjoy listening to Deva Premal’s version of a Sanskrit mantra for surrendering fear, but go with whatever works best for your spiritual path, appeals to you and fills you with inner strength and calm.

Sue Chambers writes about empowering the clarity of your message, social issues and the environment at sdc-sage-editing.com/sdc-sagewit.  If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to subscribe to her blog.

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