As of April, 900 people have listened to my presentation, Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion Efforts. Here’s a brief description: In 2012, I…
How to Calm Your Fears
Fear has a bad reputation. It’s a negative emotion. It’s a weakness. It’s a path to the dark side of the Force. It’s a character flaw. Our fictional heroes rarely show fear, and when they do, it’s for five minutes in the second act of the second movie in the trilogy.
The stories we tell about real-life heroes also showcase fearlessness, though the subjects often admit to having been being afraid during their heroic act. Including fear in a character’s personality often makes a story more interesting (see, for example, Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender [but whatever you do, don’t watch the live-action movie based off the television show]), but writers often keep it far away from the heroes. Instead, fear is ascribed to sidekicks and villains.
Maybe the people who tell our stories are onto something. We need safety. We prefer certainty and stability to real or perceived chaos. We have the ability to project these qualities onto others. We are also able to imagine them in ourselves by watching (even fictional) others bravely face down any obstacle in their path. Perhaps our preferences speak to innate needs and desires. We put ourselves in the hero’s shoes. For a brief time, we become fearless. When the hero defeats the enemy, so do we.
Then the movie ends. We put the book down. We come back to real life. The problems aren’t as interesting, and they take more than 100 minutes to solve. There’s no mystical energy force or “man in the chair” with encyclopedic knowledge of everything we can tap for answers. We must rely on ourselves.
Fear doesn’t help. It can stop us from doing what we regularly need to do. Even worse, it can hold us back from taking chances that might change our lives. But it exists. It may live privately in a secluded corner of our minds until we explode in therapy, but it’s still there. This means that the ability to be afraid must serve some purpose. Maybe it’s even useful.
Fear is part of our stress response. This system works well when one needs to occasionally escape from lions, like our ancestors and distant cousins. Fear focuses our attention, keeping us alert. Sometimes it freezes us. Anxiety prepares us to run or fight. When it’s time to act, we don’t have to think.
Today, most of us don’t have to worry about occasional lion attacks. Instead, we have deadlines and paperwork and student loans and micromanaging bosses and 40-hour workweeks and no one to take care of the kids and rent and tests and the unknown and not enough time to figure it all out. But there hasn’t been enough time for our physiology to adjust to these changes in our society. Our bodies can react to any of these stimuli as if Simba wanted to eat us.
When fear focuses our attention, we can lose sight of signals that inform us that the danger we’re responding to is less serious than life and death. Experience helps us moderate our responses. Consider how you respond to something unimportant: No reaction. You don’t even think about it. But imagine that you have to take an entrance exam to get into a school. There’s only one test. You only have one chance – this year, at least. And Simba wants to eat you. This situation can produce an anxious or fearful reaction because of its importance to you. Fear can cause you to focus on your chances of passing and ignore (1) the fact that the test is given every year, (2) you don’t need to take it now, and (3) you can take it again next year if you need to.
In this example, taking the test gives you information you can take into the future. What did you know? What didn’t you know? What happened that you expected? What didn’t you expect? What can you keep in mind for next time? Our brains consider these factors automatically, and with time and experience, we adjust. How we adjust depends on what conclusions we draw, so on a good day we might take something useful into the next encounter. On a bad day, we might falsely blame ourselves, and expect something bad to happen next time. But, when we recognize that whatever we were afraid of isn’t as bad as we thought, our stress level decreases – unless Simba starts running toward us.
This kind of experience – doing things that you’re afraid of – is the key to overcoming many of our fears. I’m not suggesting that anyone try this alone. For major fears, you might want to talk to a psychologist who specializes in helping people overcome anxiety. But, even if we don’t need to go so far as to get professional help, we often have lots of help that we don’t consider – our family and friends. But, how this works is a little weird.
In studies of resilience – the ability to bounce back after a bad event, researchers found that kids whose parents treat them in a way that makes them feel secure bounce back more easily, and are more willing to go out and explore on their own. In another study, researchers found that actually receiving help made the receiver feel worse. So it seems that the best way for friends and family to help is for the person who wants to overcome their fears to feel that they can depend on their friends and family if they need to, even if they never ask for help.
Presently, researchers don’t know why this is. Their best guess is that our loved ones don’t always do the best job of helping out. Therefore, no help is better than bad help. After all, many of us have someone in our life who can make us try things no one else can. And that’s the person everyone calls when they want you to do something.
What about one-time things? This situation is a bit trickier, but you can still do it. The trick here is to prepare in advance, when possible. Get a piece of paper. Write down your goal. Next, think of everything that you can that might stop you from achieving that goal. Then, write down what you would do if those things happened. Life never works out the way we imagine, so things will be different. But, the exercise of thinking things through will help you work out whatever happens when and if it happens.
We’re not movie characters. We’re the heroes of our own story. But we don’t have to be fearless. Fear is a tool. Too much can be debilitating and too little can be dangerous. But we can adapt to it. We can prepare for it. And the support of our friends and family can help us through it. As long as we’re not afraid to try…