We have phobias – and apparently lots of ‘em. A quick Google search lands you in a wonderland of hundreds, if not thousands of phobias (ranging from the seemingly pedestrian to those which appear downright absurd). Fear of spiders (Arachnophobia), flying (Aviophobia), feeling pleasure (Hedonophobia), bald people (Peladophobia), peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of the mouth (Arachibutyrophobia), step-mothers (Novercaphobia), and even fear of wealth (Plutophobia – seriously?!). In fact, we have so many phobias, there’s actually a name for the phobia of phobias – Phobophobia (If you don’t’ believe me, Google it ;).

Even as ridiculous as these may seem, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, phobias are the number one mental disorder among American women in all age groups and the second most common mental disorder in American men over the age of 25. Mental disorders aside, Psychologist Edwin Locke has noted that fear itself is the number one reason people fail to achieve life goals. The question is: what are you afraid of? Better yet, how can you use fear to achieve your best life?

Most of us suffer from the fear of failure (Atychiphobia). Many of us are afraid of making decisions (Decidophobia). And some fear responsibility (Hypengyophobia). While there are certainly times when a bit of anxiety is appropriate and constructive, the down n’ dirty is that fear can prevent you from going after the very things you want most in life. Therefore, managing fear is one of the most critical pieces to thriving in life. Unfortunately, fear is characterized by ‘avoidance’ – meaning that when we’re afraid of something, we tend to steer clear of it. This runs the risk of hampering new experiences, and it explains the difficulty of growth and change, given that change often entails an awkward and uncomfortable dance -- one step forward and two steps back. There’s an ongoing struggle between desiring growth versus clinging to security. Unfortunately, decades of research on fear suggest that not even rewards are powerful enough to abate the paralyzing effects of fear.

Contrary to the common view of the fight or flight response, a recent TIME article How to Get Out Alive reported that in a crises, 10-15% of people remain calm, 15% of people completely freak out, and the majority (70-75%) of people do nothing – they ‘freeze’ in fear. What makes the difference? Take the story of Paul Heck, 65, for instance - featured in the same TIME article. While sitting on a plane, awaiting take off, Paul made sure to get intimate with the 747’s safety diagram and scoped out the closest plane exit -- in the event of a crash. When the plane did indeed crash, Paul was able to react immediately and efficiently, getting himself and his wife, Floy – who was frozen in shock - off the plane safely. Floy admits that her ‘brain went blank and she had no idea what was going on’. Unfortunately, a dear friend of the Heck’s, Lorraine Larson, was frozen in shock too -- her hands in her lap and mouth slightly ajar. Like many others on that plane, Lorraine died. Luckily most of us won’t die if we fail to persevere toward our goals. Still, there are severe consequences to allowing fear to paralyze you – your quality of life and capacity to thrive!

Fortunately, the story of Paul Heck illustrates that there are concrete ways to manage fear and anxiety, and that the mind is an important place to begin. Like Paul, we need to first decide to approach and accept fear, recognizing that it’s normal to want to avoid that which scares us. After all, you can’t succeed and grow if you constantly avoid the things that induce a bit of anxiety or stress. Paul Heck’s mental preparation for a plane crash left him equipped to deal with a reality most of us would completely avoid thinking about. But by approaching this daunting situation, Paul was able to survive when other passengers lost their lives. Which pieces of your life are at risk when you're paralyzed by fear?

Traditionally, research on anxiety and fear has viewed these phenomena, at best, as unpleasant emotions, and at worst, unhealthy psychological conditions. But fear can be a good thing.It grants us opportunities to grow, to challenge ourselves in unexpected ways and to develop the courage to endure uncomfortable situations. It helps us to become more flexible and more resilient. But to derive the benefits of fear, we need to cultivate courage.

There’s a myth that courageous people are unafraid, but courage is distinct from fearlessness. In one study on fear, paratrooper trainees who were defined as ‘courageous’ were just as physically aroused as those who were defined as ‘fearful’, but were just as likely to jump from the plane as those who were defined as ‘fearless’. According to these researchers, the difference between courage and fearlessness is the aspect of feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

The more courageous you are, the more likely you are to act on your fears.Take a study on arachnophobia – a very specific and common fear. To assess courage and better understand how it relates to fear and anxiety, researchers tested a sample of 32 participants, each afraid of spiders. They were shown a display of 4 taxidermied tarantulas and “asked to move their hand as close to the spiders as they felt comfortable”. Scores on a measure of courage were linked to the distance people kept their hands from the spiders. Those with higher levels of courage moved their hands closest, while those who ranked lowest were most avoidant of the spiders. In essence, courage is a willingness to approach fear rather than avoid it. Thrivers are courageous; they’re aware of their fears, and they know how to use them to catalyze personal growth.

The C Word: Courage

Courage is about living authentically, and fortunately you have the ability to build it. To promote courage, here are 8 steps to help you spin fear into your best life.

1) Take stock of the fears that keep you from thriving in life; awareness is key.

2) Make the deliberate decision to approach your fears. 

3) Mentally reinterpret each fear as a challenge; we tend to view challenges as something to be overcome rather than avoided.

4) Capture the specific thoughts and beliefs that drive feelings of anxiety -- and challenge those thoughts. (After all, it’s your beliefs and thoughts that drive your emotions.) What’s the proof for and against those thoughts and beliefs? Work on replacing fear-inducing thoughts with thoughts that promote courage.

5) Put the sitaution in perspective. Realize that most fears are -- to some degree – irrational. Even if the worst-case scenario happens, most of the time you CAN handle it and spin it into a growth opportunity.

6) Break your fears down into small, manageable chunks. You don’t have to tackle it all at once.

7) Expect to feel some degree of anxiety and learn to be okay with that. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s supposed to be, especially at first.

8) Accept failure as an inevitable part of growth (remember, 1 step forward, two steps back).

Michael Crichton once said, “I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.” Perhaps what he is trying to tell us is that life is best lived by embracing uncertainty, by approaching the things that scare the hell out of us. People often fail at change not because of external obstacles, but rather because of themselves– because they fear and freeze. Don’t let the F Word – Fear – keep you from being of good courage! 


A guide to growth, goals and greatness.
Angie LeVan

Angie LeVan works at the Clinical Research Unit at the the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center.

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