Have you ever thought: “what if I’m not smart enough?” “What if I fail and lose everything?” “What if I’m not good enough?” If you’ve ever tried to do something outside your comfort zone, you would know this what-if game well. Triggered by fears, doubts and insecurities, all the what-if thoughts can keep you stuck and too afraid to step out and achieve truly great things in your life.
As a result, you pull back from the things you would love to do. You don’t move forward on the actions you know you need to take to grow as a person. You don’t try for that senior position, you don’t book that solo trip around the world, you don’t start that book you would love to write and you put on hold your dream of starting a business.
A sense of discontent starts to creep into your life. Deep down you know you are capable of so much more. You ask, “What if I fail?” but forget to consider, “What if I can. What if I succeed?” Fear of the unknown and fear of failure rob people of their dreams every day.
Deep down you know that you are capable of so much more. You ask, “What if I fail?” but forget to consider, “What if I can. What if I succeed?”
You may think that if you were “more something” you wouldn’t feel fear any more. Maybe you think you need to be more experienced, more educated, wealthier or more confident. The truth is, even people who are successful, confident and wealthy still feel fear. The reason they are successful, however, isn’t due to an absence of fear: it’s because they choose to engage with their fear differently.
Successful people choose to act in spite of their fear. As Susan Jeffers’ most famous book title says, they “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Fear itself is not the problem; in fact, feeling fear is a vital survival instinct, designed to keep you safe. It’s how you handle your fear that matters and determines the type of life you live.
If you want to create change in your life, you will need to do things differently, which means getting outside your comfort zone. Whenever you step out of our comfort zone there will always be a level of fear, anxiety and stress, so you need to learn how to manage your fear so you are in control of your emotions and your life.
Are you ready to move through your fear and start reaching your full potential? Any change in life begins with awareness. Once you understand what is happening in your brain and body when you feel fear, you can begin to work with and move past those responses and do the things that scare you but excite you.
Why do you feel fear?
The part of your brain that is activated when you feel fear (your amygdala) lies in the emotional centre of your brain (your limbic system). This small, almond-shaped part of your brain is vital for your survival, as its primary role is to keep you safe and alert to possible dangers.
It’s the part of your brain that kicks in when you’re in a life-threatening situation. Imagine you are just about to step off the curb when you notice a car speeding towards you. Your amygdala will recognise the speeding car as a threat and will instantly activate your body’s fight-or-flight response, allowing you to quickly jump back onto the curb and back to safety.
Your fight-or-flight response occurs when your body’s sympathetic nervous system has been activated. The role of this nervous system is to prime your body for quick physical action: to fight or to run away. To do this, your body gets a hit of adrenalin and cortisol and sets your heart racing, your blood pumping and your lungs working overtime, among many other things.
However, the fear response is also triggered when you feel fear that is non-life-threatening, like when you fear failure or when you consider doing something outside your comfort zone, like writing that book or going for that job interview.
When you understand what is happening in your brain and body when you feel fear, you can begin to take charge of your thoughts and actions and rewire your brain to enable you to do the things that scare you but excite you.
When your fight-or-flight response is activated by these types of fears, you will feel like running away and seeking safety, just like you would in a physically dangerous situation. Yet running away from these fears is not helpful and stops you from achieving your dreams and goals. While pulling back from the things that make you uncomfortable may make you feel less fear in the short term, it wires your brain to feel more fear in the future.
In Re-Wire Your Brain, John Arden writes, “The more you retreat, the more you will have to retreat. … A paradox occurs when you avoid what you fear, because your fear then grows.” Arden explains, “Challenging the paradox involves doing away with avoidance and replacing it with exposure. Exposure means facing what makes you feel anxious. By exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking situations you become habituated to them and your anxiety will eventually diminish.”
How then can you get out of your comfort zone and challenge your fearful thoughts so you can move past fear and adopt more empowering thoughts and actions? You can start to take charge of your fear by calming your fight-or-flight response, challenging and reframing your fearful thoughts and then taking action to do the things you fear but truly value.
Fight your fear in four steps
- Slow down and pause
When your fight-or-flight response has been triggered and you have adrenalin and cortisol running through your body, you need to slow everything down. The first step in doing this is to shift your body out of fight-or-flight response and into a calmer state of being by activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
You can do this through deep-breathing exercises (see the box Breathing Through Fear). By slowing and lengthening your breath you are using your physiology to change your psychology. Long, deep breaths signal to the brain that you are calm and not in danger. This calms the whole body and begins to deactivate the fight-or-flight response.
By focusing on your breath you also force your mind to stay in the present moment. When you feel stressed and fearful, your mind races with scary worst-case scenarios based on possible future outcomes. Deep breathing brings your brain back into the moment, which is where you want it to be so you can then move on to the next step and start to engage constructively with your fear.
- Create distance
When fear has been activated in your mind, it can feel 100 per cent real and true. However, sometimes what you fear is not real and needs to be challenged and explored. While you have thoughts, you are not your thoughts. Being aware of this difference is vital if you want to move through your fear.
To begin to separate yourself from your thoughts, start by reframing how you hear your fears in your mind. Imagine you are feeling scared, anxious and stressed because you’ve been asked to do a presentation at work and you’re terrified of public speaking.
“By exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking situations, you become habituated to them and your anxiety will eventually diminish.”
You may be thinking, “I can’t do this. I am going to stuff up and make such a fool of myself and be humiliated.” To separate your thoughts from your sense of self, reframe this fear by saying, “I am having the thought that I can’t do this, that I am going to stuff up and make such a fool of myself and be humiliated.” By slightly changing the way you hear your fearful thoughts you are now in a position to observe and be more objective.
Writing out why you are afraid and what you fear is going to happen is another powerful way to externalise your fear. It’s incredibly difficult to find clarity in your own mind, especially when you are scared and stressed. What usually happens when you feel fear is you go around and around in your head, repeating the same fearful thoughts and worst-case scenarios, only further fuelling the stress response in your body.
When you see your fears in black and white in front of you, outside of yourself, the thinking part of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex, becomes engaged. Now you can start to look at your fear more objectively and you can move on to step three and start challenging your fears.
- Challenge and reframe your fear
Now that you have created distance from your thoughts and externalised them by writing them down, challenge your fears and the negative assumptions that lie behind them by asking yourself two crucial questions: “Are these fears really true?” and “Are these thoughts helping me?”
Often a fearful thought will have some truth to it but will not be completely true. You may see that, while you don’t like public speaking, it’s unlikely you will completely stuff up and be humiliated. By looking for evidence against your fearful thoughts, you may also remember that the last time you spoke to a group a few people even came up and said you did a good job.
You can then reframe this situation that’s causing you stress and fear by saying, “While I don’t like public speaking, I know I can do a good job and not embarrass myself because I have done it successfully before.”
Asking yourself “Are these thoughts helping me?” is also important because it can be easy to forget how fearful thoughts can rob you of the courage to do the things that truly matter to you. If your thought is not helping you achieve and experience life as you want to, it’s time to challenge and replace it.
Going one step further, consider your worst-case scenario and ask yourself, “If the worst did happen, what would I do?” You are likely to discover it wouldn’t be the end of the world. You may also see that by putting certain things in place you could avert the worst-case scenario from happening. This process gives you the confidence that, even if what you fear did happen, you would be OK and you would manage.
Interestingly, most things people fear in life don’t actually happen. When they do, they deal with them remarkably well, far better than they would have assumed or given themselves credit for. You are far more resilient, creative and innovative than your fear tries to tell you.
By challenging and reframing your fear, your fear begins to lose its power. This means it’s now time to step out into your life courageously and make those dreams happen.
- Take courageous action
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
You must do the things you think you can’t do because if you don’t your world gets smaller and your sense of what you are capable of diminishes. Life loses its spark. The things you think you can’t do form an important part of what makes you unique and what will give your life more purpose and meaning. The things you think you can’t do are the very things that will make you feel alive.
Now that you’ve faced and challenged your fear, knowing you can move through it even though it still feels scary, the next step is to take action. Big or small steps, it doesn’t matter. Now it’s time to take a deep breath and make that call, send in your résumé, start the first chapter of your book, book that holiday, have that important conversation.
When you take courageous action in your life, amazing things start to happen. You achieve far more than you thought possible and your mind starts to wonder, “If I can do this, what else could I do?” As American author Neale Donald Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” How right he was.
You lose your wild and daring side when you live from fear and doubt. Fear moves you away from what truly matters and what you are capable of, and on the other side of your fear is fulfilment, joy and possibility.
What do you want to do in your life that has been held back by your fear? Face your fears, find your truth, live courageously and look back on your life with no regrets.
Breathing through fear
Deactivate your body’s fight-or-flight response by slowing your breathing. Try this quick and easy breathing exercise next time you feel fear, anxiety or stress:
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in.
- Exhale and count “1” in your mind.
- Repeat and count “2” in your mind.
- Continue until you reach a count of 10.
- If you lose your focus and forget what number you are on, start again at 1.
- Aim to lengthen your breath, breathing into your stomach, not just your chest.
This article first appeared in WellBeing Magazine.