Have you ever stopped to think about the impact fear has on your life? What are you most afraid of? Does this fear prevent you from succeeding in work? Does it stop you from experiencing new things? Does it limit the people you meet or the conversations you have? Fear is one of the most debilitating emotions; it robs us of our power and often leaves us feeling helpless. Dictionary.com defines fear as: “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.” What I find most interesting about this definition is that the emotion of fear can come up whether the threat is real or imagined. The fears that are often the most recurrent and debilitating are those that involve an imagined threat.
Fear: Real or Imagined?
Fear does have a purpose and can be useful when the threat we’re experiencing is real. Fear stimulates the adrenalin we need to propel us to action in a dangerous situation. But, since so much of the fear we now experience comes from imagined peril, it becomes extremely disempowering rather than beneficial. In order to live consciously we must understand our fears and learn how to dissolve them; because, without unnecessary fears we’ll be free to live our best lives.
In earlier civilizations fear was one of the keys to survival. With only basic tools for protection, humans relied on their own ability to flee dangerous situations. The “fight or flight response” which was triggered by fear, produced adrenaline which helped humans run faster, fight harder, and escape danger. Today, we have many more structures in place to help protect us from danger. While we still rely on fear to warn us when we’re in immediate danger—i.e. about to be mugged or attacked—these situations are much less common for most of us living in the developed world.
In the past fear was instinctual—our thoughts and emotions were aligned with the present moment. Somewhere along the way in our evolution, however, fear shifted from being essential to our existence to extremely debilitating. As societal structures were built to look after our immediate safety—emergency services, police, well-constructed buildings, locked doors, etc.—our fear was transferred to future happenings or imagined danger. Today, fear is considered a negative emotion that prevents us from succeeding and even causes sickness within our bodies. Most of us don’t want to feel afraid but often aren’t sure how to shake these feelings.
You see, when the feelings of fear are based on something imagined, the adrenaline produced creates a sense of discomfort—heart racing, palms sweating, stomach aching —because we don’t take immediate action like “fight or flight” to remedy the situation. Because the thing we’re afraid of isn’t “real” per-se, we’re unable to take action necessary to escape the thing causing fear, and thus the chemicals created to propel us into action begin to debilitate us instead. What we experience are feelings of agitation, anxiety, and discomfort. Instead of taking action, we try to solve the fear in our minds—which often creates an endless loop of thoughts that keep us focused on this hypothetical situation that may actually never occur. The more we focus on the fear, the more helpless we begin to feel.
It’s difficult to say for sure how the fear of future events became so prevalent in humans. Perhaps as our world became more complicated and complex, people began to feel intimidated by what they didn’t understand. As the world evolved faster and faster, maybe people became fearful of a future that was unfolding so quickly, they were unable to know for sure what was coming next. The fear of the unknown has been around for a long time, but the more intricate and complicated life gets the scarier the unknown can be. I believe that the human desire to be in control, coupled with our inability to predict the future has intensified our fears. In order to “protect” our offspring and loved-ones we share our fears with them—passing along all the negative emotions coupled with these fears. If you’re a parent then I’m sure you can identify with this. When was the last time you passed one of your fears on to your children? Told them not to drive at night; to stay away from large crowds; to only travel to “safe” destinations; or to never talk to strangers? How often have we instilled fears in others making them so afraid that they lose the courage to be themselves?
Fear can also be used in devious ways by politicians, schoolyard bullies, autocratic employers, etc., who desire control over a particular population. But, even when fear comes from a more genuine concern for the ones we love, it can still have a debilitating effect on them. We have all witnessed the crippling effects of fear and witnessed how overpowering it can become. Because, if you don’t flee from the cause of fear, what usually comes next is paralysis—the inability to move or say anything—a fear so crippling it leaves you frozen.
Whether the fears we have been handed-down came from genuine concern for our perceived well-being or from someone wanting to control us—the effect is the same. Fear robs us of our power and prevents us from accomplishing the things in life we so desire. While there are many things to actually be afraid of, if we focus all of our attention on these, we become so dejected and disempowered that we’re unable to experience happiness, peace, and harmony.
The Effects of Fear
Fears hold us back from achieving our full potential and they prevent us from feeling good about ourselves. Some of the most common fears people experience are around health, relationships, and money. The fear of death or sickness can be paralysing if you give it too much attention. There are many people who spend a lot of time worrying about finding the right partner and then once they find the said partner they worry about whether they made the right choice in marrying them. Lots of people are afraid of not being good enough; smart enough; pretty enough; popular enough; successful enough—the list goes on. And, in our increasingly materialistic world, the fear of not having enough money is often the cause of much torment and distress. Personal safety and security is a fear that many share, especially if you live in a place where your livelihood is threatened. And, one of the most popular fears, which can be included in all of the examples above is, fear of the unknown. Because our futures are not laid out for us in advance, we worry that we won’t be able to handle what comes next. What’s most interesting to me is that when you get a group of people together to talk about their fears (and, I have tried this) you will come to realize that most people share the same fears. So, while you may walk around feeling quite alone in your fears, the truth is, most people in your life are probably feeling the same way—whether they’ll admit it or not.
As I started to think about my fears and the effects they’ve had on my life, I began to realize that in most cases the fears that made me the most uncomfortable were simply illusions of what might happen in the future. And, looking back, many of these things didn’t happen as I’d expected anyway. Many of the fears never came to fruition. So, how much time did I waste thinking about and fretting about things that never occurred or were beyond my control anyway? And, if they did occur, was all the fear worth it? There is nothing wrong with thinking forward to the future if the thoughts bring you feelings of joy and happiness. But, when thinking about the future brings up distress and unease then it doesn’t make sense to allow those thoughts to continue. Focusing on fears that may never take place or are beyond our control makes little sense. It takes up time and energy without producing any positive results. If there is nothing you can do to respond to your fear then there’s really no purpose in having that fear. Although the definition provided earlier defines fear as an emotion—“the feeling or condition of being afraid”—it is actually the thoughts associated with that emotion which can be so debilitating and harmful. If we were able to simply feel our fears and let them pass through us, we would not set ourselves up for the suffering that results from repetitive fear thoughts. It is when our minds take over and become obsessed with the fears that most of our problems begin.
How Can I Overcome My Fears?
The first and most important step in overcoming your fear is becoming aware of what your fears are and making friends with them. As you continue to master the art of slowing down your thoughts, it will become much easier to notice what you are thinking about at any given time. In order to become more aware of my fears, I committed to saying the word “fear” aloud every time I became aware of a fearful thought. It was really quite amazing to see how many times in a day I actually found myself saying “fear” out loud. The reason this is surprising is that most of our thoughts come from our unconscious mind, and as a result, we are not often aware of what pops into our mind on a moment-by-moment basis. Our minds are so conditioned to function in a certain way that sometimes it feels like we’re living on autopilot.
Whenever we hear, see, touch, taste, or smell something, our unconscious mind automatically generates a thought based on its conditioning. Our minds are conditioned to have these thoughts based on what we have learned from others and our own life experiences. So, if we have been taught to be afraid, cautious, or worried about something (let’s say dogs) and then we come face-to-face with a dog, it’s likely that our mind will create thoughts of caution, fear, and worry (causing us to shy away from the dog). And, because we’re not aware of most of the thoughts we’re thinking, what happens is one thought leads to another (this dog is dangerous) which leads to another (this dog could attack me and bite off my arm) and eventually the fear gets blown way out of proportion or becomes so intense you can no longer function normally (even a photo of a dog causes great discomfort). The more we focus on this story, the more debilitating our fear becomes, and if we aren’t careful it may lead to extreme anxiety (nightmares about dogs, inability to go for walks for fear of running into a dog, etc.).
All of this can be prevented and undone if you take the time to become more aware of your fear thoughts and understand how they have come to be so intense in the first place. Saying the word “fear” out loud can bring you back to the present moment where you’re able to see what’s going on in your mind and hopefully stop it before it becomes out of control. Keeping your mind in the present moment is one of the best ways to prevent fears from creeping up on you. I learned this as I studied the work of Eckhart Tolle. In reading his acclaimed book, “The Power of Now,” I learned that the only thing that is truly real is the present moment or the now. The past is gone and the future has not yet arrived. So, since I realized that most of my fears were about the future or the “imagined threat” of what was to come, then putting my focus on the present moment seemed like the logical next step in letting go of the fears that keep creeping into my mind. I realized that while many of my fears had been “taught” to me by others including family, religious leaders, teachers, etc., I did not have to accept them if they did not serve me well. Awareness can lead to choice and making the right choices can actually change how we see and live our lives. The more aware I became of my fears, the more I realized I had a choice to either dwell on and resist the fear thought or accept it, change it, and let it go. I soon realized that no matter how much Eckhart Tolle told me that I should only be focusing on the now, the reality was, my mind still wandered quite frequently. I came to the conclusion that if I were going to change or let go of my fear thoughts, I would need something to replace them with. I then discovered that the power of faith and trust would allow me to confidently overcome my fears once and for all. By simply believing that things would work out well, no matter how challenging or difficult they appeared to be, I was able to let go of so many of my fears. Some may say that it is naive to be so foolish as to think that things will always work out well. They may be right, but I think it’s better to be naive and happy than afraid and miserable. If we are truly incapable of accurately predicting how the future will unfold, then what difference does it make if we decide to believe that all will work out well or if we decide that calamity will forever be our nemesis? Is our true outcome going to be adversely affected by having a positive view of how things will turn out, even if our view is based solely on faith and trust? Will our reality turn out any different if our thoughts about the future are full of fear or full of faith? I guess that depends on what you believe.
There are people, like me, who do believe that thoughts create reality—in which case, the positive thoughts are more likely to lead to a more positive, happy life than the fear based thoughts would. But, even if you don’t believe this to be true, why not choose thoughts that make you feel good, rather than ones that make you feel bad? It’s really that simple. I believe that fear thoughts are sticky and dark and don’t feel very good. On the other hand, thoughts of faith and hope are fluffy, light, and enjoyable. So even if you don’t think your thoughts have any influence on your outcome, why would you ever choose a fearful thought that, as the dictionary definition quoted, brings up a “distressing emotion?” Why would you choose to punish yourself with thoughts of fear that are often based only on a supposition about the future, which most of us are incapable of predicting anyway? Why not choose thoughts of faith and trust that at least make you feel more hopeful about a future situation. If you do believe that your thoughts create your reality, then you will definitely want to replace fearful thoughts with ones of faith and trust because those very thoughts will create that reality you are looking for. If you want to be a happier more relaxed person then consider replacing your thoughts of fear with thoughts of faith—and watch how different your life becomes.
Choose Faith Over Fear
The choice between fear and faith is always yours. And, for me, as I have come to choose thoughts of faith over thoughts of fear, I have not only felt better, but amazing things have come into my life. But, it’s one thing to agree that you want to replace your thoughts of fear with ones of faith or trust, and it’s another to put this into practice. To actually free yourself from thoughts of fear you’ll need patience, commitment, and courage. The world can be a scary place at times and with the multiple forms of instantaneous communications at our fingertips, we are constantly being made aware of all the things, both good and bad, that are taking place around the globe. Unfortunately, our preoccupation with information and news, coupled with the 24/7 news culture we live in, makes it difficult for us to tune-out the terrifying stories that prompt many of our fears. And so, I have made a conscious choice, at the risk of not being fully informed of all current events, to not watch, listen to, or read about the “bad’ things that are happening in our world. In not being inundated with “bad” news I am able to focus my energy on having the courage to overcome the trials and tribulations that actually came my way.
I am not saying that by choosing faith you will no longer have challenges to overcome, but what I am saying is that if you focus on your ability to overcome those challenges rather than worrying about them, life will not seem nearly as scary. If we learn to muster our courage, determination, and will then we’ll find we are capable of overcoming many of the things we were so afraid of. The Law of Attraction states that we should focus on what we want rather than what we don’t want. So, if we insist on focusing on our fears, we may just attract more of them into our lives. Many people feel that while they want to let go of fear and become more trusting, they don’t have what it takes to do so. They wrongly assume that they don’t have the courage required to dissolve thoughts of worry and dread. What I have found is that everyone is born with the courage and will to change their lives, but for some reason many of us have lost our connection to it. We have listened to others and lost our sense of knowing. We have lost our belief in our inner power and strength. We have allowed others to convince us that we cannot change ourselves or the world around us. We have been conditioned to believe that the world, no matter what, is a scary place. But is it too late to undo all of this? I say no! Your courage, will, and determination to change your life for the better are alive and well, and it is time to awaken them from their slumber. As you change your inner world, you will find that your outer world will change as well. The more love and respect that you have for yourself, the easier it will be to awaken your courage. As you reconnect with your inner power you will find that you have the ability to overcome calamity, the determination to persist against adversity, and the strength to triumph over your fears. As you practice the process of overcoming your fears, you will begin to live a life with greater happiness, peace, and contentment.