“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the resistance and mastery over fear,” said writer Mark Twain. We agree with this statement: anyone can be courageous if they know what they are afraid of and what they can confront this fear with. A psychologist explains in detail the nature of fear and ways to overcome it.
WHAT IS FEAR
Most people are afraid of something. According to VCIOM data, the number of people who don’t experience any worries varies at different times but remains below 5-7%. From a biological perspective, fear is a protective mechanism. It is present in all highly organized organisms and is necessary for avoiding dangers and staying alive. If someone claims to be fearless, it simply means that they are not in touch with their own emotions.
TYPES OF FEAR
It can manifest as a reaction to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, or encounters with aggressive animals.
This type is more abstract and includes fear of public speaking, concerns about appearing foolish, fear of change, fear of failure, fear of authority figures, fear of war, and so on.
This is the most abstract type of fear but not illusory – it pertains to the very essence of being human. It can manifest as fear of:
- space – darkness or confined spaces,
- time – fear of death or the future itself,
- self – anxiety about not understanding oneself and losing control,
- life – fear of the unknown, vast, mysterious world around us, fear of the meaninglessness of life.
Healthy and Pathological Fear
All these fears are normal. Even metaphysical fears serve a constructive function. For example, fear of the future can motivate a person to plan their actions more thoroughly, and fear of death can lead to taking care of one’s health. Existential fears compel us to search for meaning in life and ultimately make life richer and more interesting.
Prudence is one of the adaptive forms of fear. Healthy fear helps us react to danger – whether immediate or distant – and protect ourselves. Fear becomes pathological when its protective function transitions into unwarranted panic or leads to recurring states and phobias that themselves become a problem.
The main difference between constructive fear and pathological fear is a lack of control.
While fear is under control, it serves its healthy function. However, when it takes over us and begins to dictate our actions, it is considered a disorder.
With pathological fear, it is important to work on it, possibly with a professional. The point is that fear not only diminishes the quality of life but also leads to impulsive actions and damages health. Uncontrollable fear often influences our behavior unconsciously, so we are not even aware of how we limit our own lives.
For example, the fear of new acquaintances not only prevents us from finding new friends or a partner but also affects all areas of our activities. If a person with such fear is looking for a job, they will likely subconsciously send fewer resumes and reject interviews to avoid new acquaintances. Moreover, they will explain it to themselves with completely constructive reasons such as “the job position didn’t suit me” or “I have more important things to do.” It is evident that in such a situation, the chances of getting a job decrease.
HOW FEAR ARISES AND ITS IMPACT ON THE ORGANISM
Biological mechanisms are activated by receiving signals through basic senses such as sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and balance. When danger is imminent, sensory organs send a signal to a specific part of the brain – the hypothalamus. In the hypothalamus, the limbic system is activated, which in turn affects the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system consists of two parts:
- Sympathetic nervous system – mobilizes the body’s resources in moments of danger. It is responsible for the basic strategies of “fight, flight, freeze.” It triggers energy expenditure.
- Parasympathetic nervous system – engages when there is no immediate danger and is responsible for the restoration of the body after a stressful period. It triggers energy conservation.
During the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, hormones such as adrenaline (“the hormone of the rabbit”), noradrenaline (“the hormone of the lion”), cortisol, and others are released into the bloodstream. This initiates physiological changes:
- The heart beats faster and stronger.
- Breathing becomes faster and shallower.
- Digestive enzyme production is suppressed, and the intestines and stomach constrict.
- Blood pressure increases, and blood is redirected to the muscles, away from most organs.
- Pupils dilate, potentially causing tunnel vision, where one sees only what is directly in front of them.
- Pain sensitivity decreases, and blood clotting increases.
- Lung ventilation improves, bronchi and bronchioles dilate.
- Senses become heightened, and reactions become faster.
All of this allows less essential tasks, such as digestion and reproduction, to be put on hold, while maximizing energy for survival. It helps to think faster, see better, strike stronger, and escape quicker.
In the case of healthy fear, after the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic system comes into play.
The heart and breathing calm down, blood flows to the organs, and the digestive tract begins to work intensely. The body recovers from the stress period and resumes normal functioning. In the case of pathological fear, all of these mechanisms can function “meaninglessly,” responding to imaginary danger, and can force the body to operate in a state of heightened alertness for an extended period, leading to a chronic sense of threat.
Sustained physiological readiness is dangerous for health. For example, continuous cortisol production can lead to metabolic disorders, including obesity. Prolonged elevated adrenaline levels lead to exhaustion, fluctuations in blood sugar levels, and other physiological problems. Mental health also suffers under constant pressure, resulting in depression, sleep disorders, burnout, and psychosomatic illnesses.
HOW TO OVERCOME FEAR
1.Look fear in the eyes.
Ask yourself: What are you afraid of? How exactly do you feel about it? Is it a real threat or just imaginary? Talk about your fear with someone you trust. Describe your fear in words or draw it. Try to feel where it is located in your body. By doing this, you will experience your emotions, acknowledge them, and better understand them. And perhaps when you look fear in the eyes, you will see that it is not as strong as it seemed to you.
This method is suitable for dealing with almost any kind of fear, including most abstract fears. The key is to keep asking yourself question after question, delving deeper into the causes – this way, you will better understand and comprehend your deep motivations.
2.Live through the worst-case scenario.
Imagine in great detail that the worst has happened. Imagine how you feel and what you think. Consider what you will do next. Try to experience the emotions and not be afraid of them. Very often, fear loses its power after such a mental experiment. The brain is easily deceived: it can believe that everything has already happened and that there is no point in being afraid.
This method is ideal for specific concerns such as being embarrassed on a date or failing an exam. By visualizing the worst-case scenario, you can see that even after that, life can go on.
3.Step into the battle with fear.
Confront your fear head-on. If you don’t start taking action, it will defeat you. Proceed gradually: for example, if you’re afraid of the dark, gradually dim the lights in your apartment; if you’re afraid of public speaking, start by speaking in front of friends and loved ones. Don’t stop, but be gentle with yourself – you don’t have to force yourself or blame yourself if something doesn’t work right away.
This method works well for unfounded worries and specific phobias – where it is possible to take small steps forward.
4.Give Yourself Time
Your concerns have accumulated over the years – many of them have been with you since childhood. You cannot expect to start working on your fears today and no longer be troubled by them tomorrow. Patience and taking step-by-step approach bring amazing results. If you want to work on multiple fears, start with one of them first, don’t try to tackle them all at once.
5.Live in the Present
Try to return to the present moment. Most fears are about the future or imprison you in the past. The present rarely gives a reason to fear if there isn’t a dog chasing you right now or a house collapsing on you. Suppress the endless fantasies of negative scenarios that may never happen. Remember that you are here and now, everything is fine.
6.Reward Yourself for Courage
Come up with a reward that you will receive for each successful step in overcoming fear. It should be something truly enjoyable and important to you. This will give you additional motivation to push yourself.
Aristotle said that fear forces people to reflect. Take this idea to heart: reflect on yourself, your life, and your fears. When you overcome them and emerge victorious, you will rightfully be proud of yourself because overcoming fear is true courage!