What is Fear Anyway?

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Fear: that powerful, innate reaction we all have, the one which can either keep us safe or hold us back. When all is said and done, it is our ability to manage fear that determines whether or not we ultimately explore opportunities, discover our potential and achieve our dreams. 


So what is fear, why does it exist and what does managing it even mean?


Why We Fear


Fear is always trying to tell you something. It is a reaction to what your brain perceives to be a threatening situation. This may be based on personal experience, knowledge shared or quite simply, the unknown. How we perceive the threat varies, as there is not a direct physiological state mapped to fear.


Helpful as this warning may be, it is not always accurate. 


How We React to Fear


How your body responds to the fear will depend on whether you become hyper or hypo aroused by the perceived threat. The body has three natural responses to fear:


– Fight

– Flight

– Freeze


The first two are the traditionally understood reactions to fear, linked to mobilisation. These are the reactions we associate with panic and anxiety. Fear with immobilisation leads to a freeze response. This is when the body shuts down, in a state of emotional numb-ness. It is a response associated with depression. 


Types of Fear

Fear comes in many forms! In ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’, one of the best books on the subject, Susan Jeffers identifies 4 levels of fear:


1) Those that “happen” e.g. ageing, change, death and war

2) Those requiring action e.g. changing career, public speaking and intimacy

3) Involving ego e.g. failure, vulnerability, rejection and loss of image

4) Regarding ability to handle things


Those at level 1 & 2 often have a deeper connection with fears at level 3. The ego is powerful and will control us if we don’t look to lead the way. Through coaching, I have frequently found that we are more aware of level 1 & 2 fears than level 3 fears. 


Managing Fears

Managing fear requires some acknowledgement, plus a good dose of courage. It is not always easy to address fears, but often the process of doing so turns out to be easier than living with the symptoms of the fear itself.


Start by understanding your fear, the triggers and your own body’s responses. Accept the emotions you feel and acknowledge the positive intentions of the fear; this isn’t something to fight, but something to work with.


The best way to overcome fear is through exposure. This can take many forms, but allow yourself to take small steps to explore the space outside of your comfort zone. In the moment, use stress management techniques such as controlled breathing to counteract your body’s natural reactions. 


Depending on the severity of the fear, working with a therapist, coach or other professional may be hugely beneficial as you both understand the fear and take steps to manage it.


Facts to Remember about Fear


1. Everyone experiences it, but it doesn’t always show up in the same way

2. Having an emotion doesn’t mean you are the emotion

3. A fear will become a phobia in cases where it is extremely restrictive

4. Fear combined with uncertainty leads to a state of anxiety

5. It is possible to fear fear itself 

6. The fear you feel is separate from the event itself 

7. We are only born with 2 fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises

8. All other fears we learn from experience, observation and information

9. All fears can be managed 

10. Spiders, public speaking, failure and heights are some of the most common fears


We talk a lot about fear and this year has been no exception, with growth in everyday fears and the severity of the consequences. Understanding and being open about the fears we experience can go a long way toward addressing them. This article is intended to support that understanding and aide and those ongoing discussions. 


As a final note, remember fear is there to keep you safe, so the intention is not to become fearless. Instead, by leveraging fears so they do not hold you back, you will be more free to live the life you want.


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