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What Everyone Needs to Know About Fear

It's a feature, not a bug, and it should not be avoided.

Key points

  • Fear is a feature of your hardware, not a bug in your software.
  • What we think we fear is not what we actually fear.
  • The things we fear most are not the most dangerous to us.
  • Fear is like a fussy infant. To be pacified, it must be embraced.
Source: AlenaOzerova/Shutterstock

Recently, I was picked by a committee of students at my university to give a short speech during their baccalaureate ceremony, a traditional gathering of new graduates. The evening's theme had to do with managing fear, which happens to be my clinical specialty. After the speech, several audience members approached me, commenting that the words resonated. The speech is reproduced below.

Alongside my work as a psychology professor here at Otterbein University, I also have a side hustle as a clinical psychologist in private practice. My specialty is treating anxiety and fear issues. And, rolling with our theme, here are some things I’ve learned:

First, fear is a feature of your hardware, not a bug in your software. The fear system is like the pain system. We don’t enjoy the experience, but it often turns our attention to important issues. There are times when acting from fear is justified and useful. If you stand in the way of an oncoming train, the alarm bells of fear will compel you to move off the railway—and everybody wins.

But most of the time, the things that scare us most tend to have three unexpected qualities:

First, the things we fear most are not the most dangerous to us. We fear snakes and airplanes. We don’t fear chairs and french fries. Yet a sedentary lifestyle and high-cholesterol foods are killing many more of us than snakes and airplane crashes. Scary, in other words, does not mean dangerous.

ambermb for Pixabay
Source: ambermb for Pixabay

Second, what we think we fear is not usually what we actually fear. Example: People who are afraid of flying let their children fly. Most people love their children. if they believed flying was dangerous, they wouldn’t send their kids into harm’s way. In most cases, what we fear is actually the fear experience itself, its unpleasant bodily sensations and attendant troubling thoughts. Most fear is fear of fear.

Third, running away from—and avoiding—things that scare us will in fact increase, rather than decrease our fear over time. This is because avoidance works like an addiction.

People begin using a substance not to add a problem to their lives, but to solve a problem—to run away from some distress or discomfort. This works in the short term, because using quickly leads to feeling better.

But life is long-term, and in the long term, using metathesizes; you need to use more, and more often, to get the same effect. Before long, instead of the substance working for you, you're working for it. And your life falls apart.

The same goes for running away from the discomfort of fear. It is a problem masquerading as a solution.

So, what is one to do to manage fear correctly?

First, you want to base your assessment of risk not on how scared you are, but on the facts of the situation. Always check the facts. The facts are your friends in this world, even if they are not friendly facts. A good university education should convey this message.

Second, and equally important, is to ditch the habit of avoidance. Avoidance teaches you nothing but how to avoid more. If your only solution for the discomfort of fear is avoidance, you will avoid more and more and end up in a prison of your own avoidance.

Instead, you must learn to face and accept your fears. Fear is like a fussy baby. To be pacified, it must be embraced. Accept the discomfort of fear and learn to tolerate it, because life is like a diamond: precious and beautiful, but also damn hard. Periodic discomfort is a part of being and of achieving anything meaningful in this world. Remember: Discomfort is not the end of the world. It is just the world.

Accept your feelings. But when deciding on a course of action, don’t rely solely on your feelings. Because while your feelings are important, they are mind events, not world events. And they often provide partial or distorted information. If you feel like a great driver, that’s good for you. But I’d like to know the facts about your driving skill before I hire you to drive the new Lamborghini I bought with my university salary.

Instead, before making a decision, you’d want to enlist sources of information other than emotions. Ask yourself: What are the values I want my decision to represent? What are my goals in this situation? What are the facts? What does the voice of reason have to say?

Consulting these sources of information, you can then make a considered decision rather than an emotionally-driven one. Those tend to be better, in the long run.

Finally, when dealing with fear, you want to pay attention to your mindset, focusing particularly on The Three C's—all of which we have tried to weave into your university experience.

First, prioritize Courage. Just as all of us have fear, all of us also have courage. The question is: Which of these will you choose to follow? Fear is an important consultant, but a lousy boss. Courage is a wise leader. Get behind it.

Second: lean into your Curiosity—we can learn from children, who have all the reasons to be scared and are yet much more curious than they are afraid. Pro tip: When you tell yourself “I’m scared.” Tell yourself “I'm curious” instead. You’ll thank me later.

Last is Caring. Freud said, “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.” Nurture your relationships. It’s the best investment you can make toward a good life, by far. Surround yourself with people you care about, and who care about you. Attach yourself to a meaningful project. Viktor Frankl said: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how.'” When you have a "why" you care about, the discomfort of fear becomes mere background noise.

With love as your compass and truth as your light, you will never be lost.

Facebook/LinkedIn images: fizkes/Shutterstock

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