Fear. It can save or destroy you. Seeing how the term influences the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, there must be something about it that is necessary, while another form of it is lethal. Often times, it is incredibly challenging to distinguish the nature of a situation and its subsequent responses due to this rather convoluted emotion reacting the same way on your body and mind in both practical and impractical scenarios.
Fear while confronted by a lion makes your brain construct solutions to get out of the situation in time but the same fear doesn’t help when you’re about to speak on stage to an audience does it? So how do we cultivate fear in the time of need and channel it effectively when it is undermining the good? The next time you feel afraid, take the advice of fear researcher Mary Poffenroth and think “RIA.”
During the early days of our life, fear is on a much more minimal scale and is more instinctive however, as we age and accumulate experiences, the nature of fear becomes more complex and is constantly evolving. To break it down, fear come in two forms: factual and fictional. A factual fear as explained before, is more instinctive and appears when confronted with dangerous scenarios, such as losing you way in a dense forest or being confronted by a snow leopard.
Fictional fear on the other hand is a work of your mind and is mostly contained in your head with no immediate threat in sight. These include situations where we fear being fired for a blunder or the rejection of a proposal to a loved one. Interestingly, this can be further divided into two broad categories: the fear that you’re not good enough, or that you have no control over the situation. Feeling insecure? Overwhelmed? Stressed? Inadequate? Those are all just words for fear.
The intriguing aspect of the brain’s emotion center, known as the amygdala, is that it reacts the same way to those fictional fears as it does to factual fears: by shutting down non-essential systems like digestion and libido to ensure you can get out of there alive. If you spend every day stressed or insecure, you’re putting your body in a constant fear response. “That’s what I really focus on,” Poffenroth explained. “How we can change our story with our fictional fears so they aren’t firing up the amygdala so much and we aren’t going into this full stress response.”
THE RIA METHOD
RECOGNIZE: Notice how you are feeling. Is your heart beating fast? Do you have an uncomfortable sensation in your stomach? Are you breaking into a sweat or are you out of breath? Are you avoiding things that make you happy? These are all symptoms of a fear response, and this first step simply involves acknowledging that something in your system suggests that you are afraid resulting in said physical responses.
IDENTIFY: A name always puts an identity or rather, a definite root or power, in the case of fear. Always learn to question and categorize your fear and put a name on it. This gives you the power to control what was once untamed and was reaching the depths of misery. Is this factual or fictional? If it’s fictional, does it come from feeling like you’re not enough or like you’ve lost control?
“When you start to name it, sometimes that can just short circuit the fear response in and of itself,” she says. It seems that fear is funnily egoistic. It stays only if it is encouraged but the moment you question it, is chooses to die out. If it is manageable to the level that you can put a name on it, the subsequent steps in eliminating this emotion can be ignored, as the feeling vanishes after being identified in most cases.
ADDRESS: If you’ve done the first two steps and you’re still deep in the fear response, it’s now time to address it. If it’s a factual fear, this is obviously the point when you should take steps to protect yourself. If it’s fictional in nature however, there are a number of strategies you can use to overcome it.
If all you need is to calm your response, try box breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, repeat as needed. While physical means do exist to combat this emotion, the most effective way to eliminate the root cause is to confront it. Running away or hiding from the fear only amplifies it. While admittedly it is easier said than done, there is no practical way out when the situation causing the distress chooses to stay against your will.
In many cases, this feeling is triggered by a very serious situation that could potentially lead to unwanted consequences. However, fear gives no practical solutions to any problems. Unfortunately, it suppresses the positive possibilities and undermines your ability to solve and arrive at solutions. In the grand scheme of things, if the fear isn’t helping you in any way, then why let it eat you up when you can choose to stay positive and look at viable ways out?
Often times, the best way to combat this complex emotion is to imagine the worst case. Once you have recognized that, you can come to terms with it and look for constructive ways out of it. With a long life ahead filled with opportunities across the spectrum, being afraid is not worth it. Time makes us realize that the fear was only relevant when we allowed it and that there is always a way out although at the moment, it imbibes on a stronger level.
It will almost seem laughable when we overcome and move on to greater things in life. Nothing is as bad as it seems and nothing stays as it is forever. Most importantly though, never ignore your fear and push it under the rug. Your body will keep fighting it with or without you and cause more problems down the line.
When you understand that the rest of the 7 billion people around go through the same frightening experiences as you at some point, you’ll feel a lot at ease at the habitual and ordinary nature of this emotion and will gain the confidence to eliminate it. Stand by your ideals, identity and freedom and conquer the world without any fear bringing you down! After all, you have one life.