Flip your outlook on the emotion that freezes you.
Standing at the edge of a precipice, looking at a challenge ahead, you start to feel a pit in your stomach, your breathing becomes shallower and faster—it’s a feeling that can leave you frozen. It is fear.
Some see fear as a weakness. In reality, it is the lens through which we view our reality. It is the way we perceive the risk of a situation.
“While untamed, unvarnished and uncontrolled fear can debilitate and cripple a human, as in stress-related disorders—PTSD, for example, and other anxiety related disorders such as OCD and disordered eating—when thought about in a healthy way, fear can bring significant reward,” says Dr. Michael R. Mantell, director of transformational coaching at Premier Fitness Camp at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in San Diego. “Fear is associated with, and a precursor to, anxiety, which is essentially the prediction of some terrible, awful, horrible outcome and is therefore always a future-based discomfort. It’s often an automatic negative thought.” But it doesn’t have to be.
If we look at fear as a window to risk and our response to it, we may actually welcome that uncomfortable feeling. Here are six things about fear that are important to know and embrace.
1. Fear establishes boundaries.
“Fear is one foundation of our restrictions,” Mantell explains. “It may not be the sole foundation. When we predict outcomes and believe they will be awful, terrible or horrible, of course, we restrict ourselves.” Often anchored in past experiences, fear is determined by these physiological and psychological events and our thoughts about those events.
But sometimes our fear can be a bit irrational. For instance, people aren’t really afraid of the dark, but rather what they imagine is in it.
Research has found this to be the case for many of the things we worry about. A study published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy found that a full 85 percent of what subjects worried about or feared never happened. Seventy-nine percent of people said that they were able to handle a situation better than predicted or that they learned a worthwhile lesson from facing the situation. So a large percentage of what people fear, or worry about, is exaggeration and misperception—not a good measure of risk at all.
No matter what the origins, “Fear holds people back from doing things they’d like to do and would benefit from doing,” Mantell says. “F-E-A-R [can stand for] Face Everything and Run. The key is to flip it to F-E-A-R: Face Everything and Rise.”
2. Fear helps us navigate risk.
“When an individual feels fear and uses it as an alert that he or she may not be fully in charge of his or her thinking and therefore may not be accurately judging a circumstance or situation, it can be used as a first step to calm down and reassess more carefully what one is looking at,” Mantell says. He suggests a three-step approach to a risky situation:
Step 1: Recognize that you are feeling fear.
Step 2: Identify the thoughts you are having that create that feeling of fear.
Step 3: Challenge the thoughts: Are they true? What else can I think about this? How do I know what I’m predicting will happen? What steps can I take to calm myself down to properly respond (not react) to this situation?
3. Fear makes us wise.
The goal is to rise to fearful situations. Using the three steps outlined above, we may actually try the difficult thing and discover it wasn’t as we predicted. The end result is that the experience becomes part of our knowledge.
“Yes, fear can help people develop wisdom, but the link is what you think,” Mantell says. “So when people experience fear and understand it rationally, with a calm mind, they are then clearly able to see that it can be grounded in something that is deeper, and this may lead to wisdom—the wisdom not to believe everything one thinks.”
4. Fear develops courage.
A requirement of courage is fear. To be courageous, you need to face a fear head on. “Courage is an act of suppressing and overcoming fear, of telling yourself that regardless of the outcome, you will prevail,” Mantell says. “By overcoming a fear, by recognizing that what you imagined would stop you didn’t, you build self-confidence and courage.”
5. Fear makes us resilient.
“Resilience is about maintaining flexibility, being able and willing to adapt and adjust to situations we create in our mindset as fearful, tense, difficult,” Mantell explains. “Resilient people accept their fears, and that builds strength to embrace, overcome and harness fear.” When you focus your fearful experiences as sources of personal strength, it can help you learn strategies that can build resilience.
6. Fear can motivate.
Pushing past a fear can be a goal in itself. “Fear can motivate,” Mantell says, “often more than a positive reward.”
Mantell offers an example of your physician telling you if you don’t begin a healthy lifestyle, your health will worsen and you’ll shorten your lifespan. Your response can be, “Yikes! I’m fearful I’ll die young. I better get thinking right, eating right and moving right!” If you don’t run away from the fear of death, you can use it for improving your well-being by joining a gym, getting a health coach and adopting a healthier lifestyle. “This is fear-rewarded health,” Mantell says. And this is just one way that fear can help motivate us to take action.
Ultimately, the key to using fear to help you succeed is to harness all the positive characteristics it can uncover.
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