Fears are one of the primary motivators of the human condition. To dismiss a person’s fears is to deny such fears exist.
They may take the form of emotions triggered by any range of upsetting or frightening events: unexpected, tragic news; repeated problems; challenging deadlines; something physically painful; a nasty or threatening email; heights; an interview; an exam; even having to speak up in front of a group.
Certain people or our interactions with them may trigger a fear response. They may be perceptions of the present or the future, and they are certainly embodied by other people and the dynamics we have with them. For some of us, fear of separation from our children or family, even through work travel, can cause fear. Fear of dangerous situations and places is common. Extreme fears that stop us from leaving home or doing our job can require psychological intervention.
Fear holds us back
What do we feel when we are fearful? Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, a nauseous feeling, shaking, hand tremors, flushed face or neck, dry mouth, headache, chest pains? It’s common to feel helpless, paralysed to act, or unable to even decide on what to do. A fear may well be justified, and not a figment of someone’s paranoia.
Fear can help us sharpen our senses, refine our approach and most importantly help us be careful when a situation is dangerous.
Face the fear
A skill we all need is to face our fears and turn fears into best actions for the situations. The first thing is to see what the fear actually constitutes because sometimes we feel generalised fear and deny the actual source.
Is it a bullying co-worker or an abusive boss, someone who is making your life painful, or is it a simple request for you to present a report to senior leaders? Or is it a report or project that you have not finished on time? Analyse this situation.
How bad is it? Talk about it with someone you respect and trust, and who is a good listener. Do it sooner rather than later so the fear is broken down. Often talking about it and identifying it will help you face it. Then you can work out what is practical next step. Take one small positive step to make sure you don’t let this fear fester.
There are times when routes out of the paralysis are not always obvious. Cyber bullies attack vulnerable individuals, taunting and hounding, and sadly some seek refuge in suicide. If this is happening to you or anyone you know, especially kids, urgently seek help. Bring in reinforcements. Don’t tough things out by yourself.
Fear can motivate – for better or worse
A fear of sharks can spur some to become great swimmers. A fear of flying can push some to take on jobs with lots of air travel, to meet their fear head on. It’s great to hear people say: “I used to be afraid of … but now …”
In these instances, fear is healthy – we don’t just freeze, but become purposeful.
Unfortunately a fear of making a mistake, of taking risks or speaking publicly can hold some back in their careers.
Fear can be your teacher
Don’t allow fears to overrun or hijack your emotions, or the emotions of those close to you.
In your mind, throw a restraining leash around the hijacker and “order it” to start moving. The fear is strong, yes, and it may growl and bite, but be calm, reassuring (to yourself) and maintain your focus. Eventually, the snarling biting terrified animal will heel and transform into a devoted but still responsive and alert pup.
Take that fear of public speaking and turn it into energy and passion for your topic. Take that fear of making a mistake and turn it into being an efficient fact checker, or a learner from mistakes.
Fear can be funny
Some will disagree, particularly if you’ve already experienced the worst in a situation. Yet some of the world’s best comedians and humorists turn their own fears into marvellous belly laughs that really do lift our mood. Humour is a wonderful cathartic release for fear. Share your fears with others and laugh together at how you did or didn’t conquer them.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runsSeven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.