Four ways to make fear work for us.
Posted Dec 26, 2020
Conquer is a strong word. It describes overcoming an obstacle, an enemy. I find that fear is a formidable enemy, so conquering is the right way to look at it.
In my last blog post I wrote about fear that is manufactured to keep us scared, angry, and divided. Such false fear is different from the fear we face in life that warns us against danger or keeps us from being reckless and making bad decisions. The task I previously proposed is to differentiate between manufactured fear and helpful fear by embracing fear that helps us stay safe and diminishing fear that blocks us from thinking clearly and caring about others. In this post, I expand on the ways that we can overcome fear.
Fear can be productive—strive to use it that way
Fear serves the valuable purpose of helping us survive by making us alert to dangerous situations. This is positive fear. Honor it, use it to make decisions that promote life. Sometimes productive fear is difficult to recognize. For example, there is fear that serves as motivation to take on a challenge and there is fear that keeps us from trying new things and reinforces a sense of failure.1 This is a great distinction. Fear that is challenging is positive; fear that is paralyzing is negative. That means we need to embrace challenges, even when we feel nervous, anxious, or afraid. How many successful actors and musicians admit that they have moments of fear before they perform, yet you would not know it by the strength of their performance? This is a productive use of fear. On the other hand, fear that keeps us from trying new things reinforces a sense of failure. This fear is not productive.
Fear that is used to frighten us
There is another type of unproductive fear, the fear that is used by others to scare us. Warnings that arouse fear in exaggerated or dramatic ways can be counter-productive. For example, public service announcements that elicit fear to scare you are actually less persuasive than images shown to elicit empathy.2 An example of this is the difference between showing graphic pictures of people on drugs meant to convince you that using drugs is a bad choice compared to showing pictures of people needing assistance and working to overcome their addictions. In fact, the negative images can increase our anger with those at-risk of the undesired behavior. Using fear to create scare tactics can actually be counter-productive.
Four ways we can make fear useful
So how do we make fear work for us? Fear is designed to get our attention so that we react. That initial rush of fear is helpful because it could save our lives. However, prolonged fear tends to be draining and is not helpful. The task is to face our fears and interpret them in ways that help us to develop and grow stronger. We can do that when we:
- Make fear productive. We are hard-wired to physically feel fear. That immediate flood of fear can propel us to take action to make us safe. The challenge is to interpret those fearful feelings in ways that are useful. Honor the power of fear to keep us away from danger and protect us from reckless behavior.
- Maximize productive fear. Recognize fear that challenges us to master difficult tasks. It can help us to set goals for achievement. This is positive fear and can propel us to do things we thought we could not do. Productive fear can lead us to accomplishments, and mastering those challenges builds our self-esteem.
- Recognize manufactured fear, the kind of fear that is designed to manipulate us. Fear is a powerful trigger and can be purposely used to push us emotionally. This is negative fear that promotes someone else’s agenda, not ours.
- Learn about things we fear. Knowledge is power and helps us gain understanding to confront things that are frightening because they are foreign to us. Instead of being frightened and paralyzed, we gain expertise and control.
The best way to conquer fear is to recognize when fear is useful and when it is not. Understanding why we are afraid can give us power to act on that knowledge. Let fear motivate us to be safe and take challenges rather than stop us from moving forward.
1. Putwain, D.W., Symes, W. & Remedios, R. (2016). The impact of fear appeals on subjective-task value and academic self-efficacy: The role of appraisal. Learning and Individual Differences, 51, pp. 307-313.
2. Peng, L., Shen, L., Vanderbilt, R.R., Kim, Y. & Foley, K.A. (2020). The impact of fear versus state empathy on persuasion and social stigma. Media Psychology, 23, 1, pp. 1-24.