Fear is… really scary, actually.
Research shows being afraid you’re going to lose your job can be worse than actually losing your job:
“…perceived job insecurity ranks as one of the most important factors in employees’ well-being and can be even more harmful than actual job loss with subsequent unemployment.”
In a number of surveys, fear of speaking in public ranks higher than fear of death. Jerry Seinfeld interpreted this as meaning that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
In a study, people were willing to pay more to avoid fear than to be happy.
Here’s the funny thing: we know a lot about how fear works and a pretty simple way to beat it. In fact, we’ve known the answer for thousands of years.
So how do you conquer fear?
When we feel in control, we’re not afraid. When we have a level of comfort with something, it’s not scary.
Anything that gives you a feeling of control over your situation helps you keep your cool.
Without a feeling of control, when stress gets high we literally can’t think straight.
Amy Arnsten studies the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning. She summarized the importance of a sense of control for the brain during an interview filmed at her lab at Yale. “The loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control. It’s the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not. Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.” This perception of being in control is a major driver of behavior.
This is why fear often seems so random and irrational. And why you’re often afraid of all the wrong things.
Worried about terrorism? Then you should be absolutely terrified of your couch, pal. Americans are as likely to be killed by their furniture as they are by terrorists:
According to the report, the number of U.S. citizens who died in terrorist attacks increased by two between 2010 and 2011; overall, a comparable number of Americans are crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year.
This is why people lose their minds over Ebola but still won’t use a seatbelt.
Think about driving for a second. You’re piloting a 2000lb missile at 65 miles per hour. But that’s not scary. Why? You’re used to it. You feel in control.
The idiot next to you could crash into your car and in half a second you’d be a fiery ball of twisted steel — but you don’t give it a second thought. (Maybe you’re too busy texting.)
But if something is strange? Uncommon? We’re not used to it. Uh oh, scary.
And so what do we do? Avoid it. Ignore it. Deny it. Distract ourselves from it… And none of that stuff works.
(For the ten things you should do every day to improve your life, click here.)
So what’s the solution? You have to get closer to your fears.
“Face your fears.” It’s a cliche. It’s vague and unhelpful. But it’s accurate.
You need to spend time with your fears. Get closer to them. Intensify them.
Only then will you stop being afraid.
Take a second. Think about your worst fear. Maybe it’s speaking in public.
So you’re speaking in public and everyone is utterly bored by you and not paying attention.
Hold on that for a second. It stings, but stay with me. Now make your fear worse.
You’re speaking in public and you wet yourself. Everyone laughs. It’s mortifying. But spend a second there.
Now make it even worse.
The whole thing is recorded and gets 3 million views on YouTube.
Stay with it. No, you’re not going to die.
Now relax. Just follow your breathing — in and out — for a few seconds.
You’re on your way to conquering your fear.
Sound overly simple? Nope. This is exactly what’s recommended by Harvard Medical School professor, Ronald Siegel.
Now that you’ve developed a clear experience of anxiety, try intensifying it. Make it as strong as you can while sitting here holding this book. Don’t worry; this is safe. I promise it won’t last forever. Once you feel as though you’ve generated about as much anxiety as you can muster, see if you can hold on to it. Set a timer or look at your watch and try to keep the anxiety going at the same level for at least 10 minutes. If it starts to fade, try to intensify it again. Now that you’ve practiced bearing your anxiety, you can bring your attention back to your breath for a few more minutes and feel what that is like.
Doing this regularly can seriously put a dent in those fears. And scientists weren’t the first group to figure this out.
The samurai used to think about death a lot. Why? That way they wouldn’t fear it in battle.
One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.
The ancient Stoics knew this too. “Negative Visualization” is one of the main tools of Stoicism.
Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they’re not that bad.
It’s what the Stoics call, “the premeditation” – that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.
Across multiple studies, people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals (Lepore 1997). Other studies found improvement in overall well-being and improved cognitive functioning (Barclay & Skarlicki 2009).
(To learn how to overcome regret, click here.)
Is that it? No. Now you can do something about it.
Fear prevents clear thinking and causes you to procrastinate. Now that you’ve dealt with it a bit you can make some real progress.
What else gives a feeling of control and helps fight fear? Preparation. You envisioned what you were afraid of. Now you can do something to make sure it never happens.
Who survives catastrophic scenarios? The people who have prepared.
According to Johnson and Leach, the sort of people who survive are the sort of people who prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time. They’ve done the research, or built the shelter, or run the drills. They look for the exits and imagine what they will do. They were in a fire as a child or survived a typhoon. These people don’t deliberate during calamity because they’ve already done the deliberation the other people around them are just now going through.
How did NASA make sure that astronauts wouldn’t panic in the early space missions? They ran them through every step of the process until it was boring. This level of familiarity produced a powerful feeling of confidence:
Before the first launch, NASA re-created the fateful day for the astronauts over and over, step by step, hundreds of times — from what they’d have for breakfast to the ride to the airfield. Slowly, in a graded series of “exposures.” the astronauts were introduced to every sight and sound of the experience of their firing into space. They did it so many times that it became as natural and familiar as breathing.
Why are Navy SEALs so fearless? They train, train, train. Former SEAL Platoon Commander James Waters explains:
Most people assume if you’re a SEAL, you’ve been deployed in the combat zone every waking moment of the time you’re on active duty which, of course, isn’t the case. We spend 75% of our time preparing for deployment and about 25% on the deployment. The reason for that is we have a lot of skills to cover and a SEAL’s trying to be a “jack of all trades, master of none.” There are many different disciplines to master, all of which require a lot of upkeep. It’s not like you jump out of a plane once and then you remember how to do it forever. It’s something you’ve got to constantly revisit. When you hang out in the mountains of Afghanistan, you don’t exactly get to work on your scuba diving.
(For more tips from a Navy SEAL on grit and resilience, click here.)
Okay, time for the quick sum up — along with one other scientific tip you can use whenever you feel afraid.
Here’s how to conquer fear:
You don’t need to be fearless. (Parents take note: fearless kids are more likely to become criminals.)
But what you do need to do is laugh. Humor provides a powerful buffer against stress and fear.
…joking actually reformats your perception of a stressor. “Humor is about playing with ideas and concepts,” said Martin, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario. “So whenever we see something as funny; we’re looking at it from a different perspective. When people are trapped in a stressful situation and feeling overwhelmed, they’re stuck in one way of thinking: This is terrible. I’ve got to get out of here. But if you can take a humorous perspective, then by definition you’re looking at it differently — you’re breaking out of that rigid mind-set.”
Face your fears. Prepare for them. And don’t forget to laugh. Fear is usually worse than what we’re afraid of.
As Bertolt Brecht said:
Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.
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