Feeling afraid isn’t fun, unless you’re one of those people who loves to watch scary movies… Most of us don’t enjoy that moment when your stomach drops to the floor, your breath hitches, and your heart rate starts to climb. It’s so unpleasant that we avoid it in most cases.
But! Feeling afraid means your brain is working properly. It means that your instincts have detected or predicted something to be a potential threat, and your brain wants you to be ready to run or fight. Feeling fear makes you human. It’s one of the most “normal” things in the world to be scared of something. But what happens if you’re scared of everything? Or if you feel scared all the time, even when you know you’re safe?
What is Fear?
Simply put, fear is both an emotional response and a biochemical reaction. You become alert to the presence of danger because your brain floods with chemicals that tell your body to get ready for the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. That’s incredibly useful if you're being chased by a serial killing clown with a chainsaw. Less so when you’re just trying to pass debate class with a fear of public speaking.
Your emotional response is when you start to assign positive or negative feelings to a particular experience of fear. Some people love the thrill of going to a hands-on haunted house every Halloween, so fear isn’t always necessarily a negative. On the other hand, if the very idea of standing up in front of others to argue a point has you quaking in your Converse, fear can create some real challenges.
The trick is our ability to tell the difference between the legitimate presence of danger and an imagined threat.
When Fear Gets Out of Hand
“Constructive fear alerts us to an actual threat [and] keeps us safe from danger. Destructive fear alerts us to a non-existent threat. There is no actual threat, but our minds tell us there is,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
If you’re afraid of being hit by a car, so you’re always careful to look both ways before you walk across the street, that’s constructive. Your fear is healthy. If you love yoga, but you’re afraid to let anyone see you in yoga pants, so you haven’t practiced yoga in years, that’s destructive. That fear is unhealthy and takes a negative toll on your quality of life. You may also want to address your fear if any of the following sound familiar:
- Worrying constantly about things that haven’t happened yet
- Avoiding painful experiences like eating in the cafeteria, upsetting a certain person, getting a bad grade, etc.
- Feelings of dread about the future
- Intolerance of uncertainty or not being comfortable until you have “all the facts”
- Indecisiveness because you’re afraid of making the wrong decision
- Overthinking to the point that you are losing time for important activities
- Not being able to think clearly because all you can think about is what could go wrong
- Feeling stuck in a negative situation but too afraid to seek change
Fearful thoughts that weigh on you to the point of limiting what you feel capable of doing are a sign that something deeper is going on. Perhaps you have some past trauma that needs to be resolved, or maybe you’re dealing with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. At the very least, your mental health could use some TLC. You can learn how to overcome fear and live a healthier life with more freedom! Just take a deep breath and keep reading.
How Do You Gain Control Over Fear?
Let’s take another moment to appreciate your brain’s ability to process fear. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with you when you feel afraid. Your mind and body are supposed to do that. The only trouble is that your brain has a hard time recognizing when it’s time to let go of fear so that it doesn’t become destructive, and that’s something you can practice.
Here are a few helpful tips to overcome a fear:
- Take a few deep breaths. This might sound cliché, but taking deep breaths isn’t just a nice idea. Giving your body a moment to be calm, quiet, and breathe can actually impact your heart rate and your brain’s chemical balances. When you’re scared, your heart might race and stress hormones get produced in your body. Try this breathing exercise, then check out the rest of these tips
- Assess the facts. There’s a common trick for confronting fear called: F.E.A.R. False Evidence Appearing Real. Ask yourself two questions:
- Right now, what exactly is it that my brain thinks would be scary or unpleasant about ________?
- What is actually true about _______? If you can identify where your brain is relying on false evidence about a potentially scary situation, then you can challenge those thoughts by thinking through the truth, which is hopefully far less scary.
- Comfort yourself. If a little kid were scared of something, how would you treat them? You’d probably ask them what they’re scared of. You’d probably listen patiently as they explained, no matter how silly their fear might be. You’d probably hold them, hug them, or stroke their hair as they cry. You’d probably offer to investigate the closet for monsters or ride the slide with them so that they don’t have to do it alone. You’d probably offer them a yummy snack or suggest a nap, because those things would help them feel better. You’d comfort them.
- Now, what do you do when you’re scared? Judge yourself? Tell yourself that you’re weak and stupid? Hide away from others and worry that you’re a burden? That simply won’t do. Feeling afraid takes a lot out of you! Be kind to yourself in more ways than one when you recognize fear taking over:
- Recite calming prayers or affirmations of truth to combat your fearful thoughts.
- Wrap yourself up in a favorite blanket and turn on an old favorite movie.
- Take yourself on a walk to get coffee or ice cream to reward yourself for getting through a scary moment.
- Go to bed early or take a nap so your body will have more energy to fight fear.
- Call a friend and explain your fears to them so that they can’t fester.
- Confront avoidance. When we are afraid of something, sometimes it’s all too easy to ignore it. When that thing is spiders, that’s probably fine… it shouldn’t impact your life much to avoid spiders. When that thing is rejection, the only way to avoid it is to steer clear of relationships, which isn’t healthy or fun. You don’t have to climb a mountain every day if you’re afraid of heights, but try to be mindful when you find yourself avoiding activities or experiences to the point that it’s unhealthy. Avoidance may cut down on how often you encounter fear, but that fear will only grow in the meantime.
- Seek social support and professional help. Reach out to trusted friends and family about the fears you’re facing. They love you and want to be there to support you, so there’s no reason to go through this journey alone. If you feel like you need additional support and guidance, look for a licensed therapist who can help you determine where your fears come from, why they are controlling you, and what you can do about it. It may feel scary to talk to anyone about these things, but once your fears are out in the open, you might find that they feel a little smaller.
Just listen to Mr. Rogers! He once said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
How Can Your Faith Help With Fear?
Depending on your translation, the Bible contains the words “be not afraid” or “do not fear” hundreds of times. Why? Well, I think it’s because God doesn’t want us to suffer under fear. Even Jesus felt fear, so it’s not that fear itself is the issue. God just doesn’t want a life of fear for us. That’s why Jesus offers us so many words of peace and comfort, extends kindness at every opportunity, and promises that when our feelings are burdensome, we can come to Him for strength and understanding.
The next time your fear tries to convince you that you’ll never survive another chemistry test or school play audition, remind yourself of what’s true: you are loved so fully that whether you fail, pass, land the lead, or forget your lines, your worth as a unique creation in the image of the divine is fixed. Nothing can change or challenge that worth, so fear doesn’t stand a chance when you decide to confront it from a place of knowledge, hope, and faith.
If you would like to talk to someone about your struggles with fear, feel free to reach out to one of our Hope Coaches today. You can also read more about mental health, anxious thoughts, and faith on our website.
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