How to Deal with Your Irrational Fears
Overcoming fears is one of the most popular goals that humans have as almost everyone has some type of irrational fears. Irrational fears are not the fears that help keep you alive when you are fighting against a threat. Irrational fears are those fears that may or may not have any real basis in reality but still scare you anyway.
Dealing with irrational fears is important because letting them consume you can stop you from living your life. Before you can begin to deal with your fears, you first need to begin to understand fear itself.
In this article, we share some insights into 1) the science behind fear, 2) the difference between healthy fear and irrational fear, and 3) how you can overcome your fears.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND FEAR
Neuroscience offers you a window into the world of fear. Different advances in brain scanning techniques and other methods of examining the brain have proven that fear is a normal part of the human existence. Neuroscience can tell you a lot about what scares you and a little bit about why that fear scares you.
What Scares You
You were born knowing how to be afraid. Fear is a survival mechanism that is engrained into the human brain and develops both in the womb and out of. This is why many people share common fears like a fear of heights, the dark or certain predators. All of these things can cause physical harm to your body and your brain wants to avoid pain, suffering and an untimely death. Thus, you are afraid of falling from a cliff or being bitten by a venomous snake. Some people are more afraid or less afraid of these things. However, even Bear Grylls takes precautions to avoid imminent death at the hands of natural disasters or predators.
Why It Scares You
Neuroscientists and other researchers have figured out the basic things that scare people. However, figuring out why they scare people at such different intensities remains a mystery. In fact, it is one of the most difficult problems in neuroscience. Fear is a feeling that you have when you are issuing an immediate response to a stimulus. It is hard to define not only because people experience fear different but because it is hard to see what causes it.
Scientists can pinpoint different areas of the brain that become active when you are afraid. However, the ability to not just describe it but understand it is difficult. Ultimately, fear itself is hard to quantify. Although researchers can see what areas of the brain light up when you are afraid, this does not necessarily describe how afraid of the stimulus you are. It also does not consider the personal experiences that have made you more afraid of that stimulus.
HEALTHY FEAR VS. IRRATIONAL FEAR
Since fear is a natural part of life, a certain amount of fear is healthy. As a young child, this fear helps keep you alive when you are most vulnerable. However, fear can be broken down into two major categories: healthy fear and irrational fears.
Healthy fear is not a bad thing even if it does not feel positive when you are afraid. In fact, not having a healthy level of fear is a bad thing! Being rid of this natural fear would lower your inhibition and thus make you more vulnerable to real threats.
Scientists suggest that the amount of fear that is natural is rather small. According to a 1960 study, you were born with only two fears: falling and loud noises. Fear of falling helps you survive. Loud sounds startle you and then elicit the fight or flight response that you need to deal with possible threats.
A good dose of healthy fear can keep you diving off of proverbial and literal cliffs. A little apprehension is not always a bad thing, especially if you feel the need to re-check your parachute a third time before you make the big jump.
Transitioning to Irrational Fear
If you are born with only two fears, it is hard to see why your brain would then create a second, more difficult kind of fear: irrational fear.
Your healthy fears become irrational because as your brain develops, you learn to fear things. You might have only had two fears when you entered the world. However, your brain was not yet fully developed and you did not have many dangerous experiences in the womb. There was no need for you to be afraid of public speaking before you were born because that was not an experience you were going to have anytime soon. Thus, as you grow and have new experiences, your brain learns about new things to fear.
As it learns, you form new biases. Some of these biases came from your parents and your culture. However, the source of these other biases is unknown. Some scientists think that these biases come from experiences. However, like neuroscience, these experiences can be hard to quantify.
Whatever the cause, years of experience can drive perfectly healthy fears into crippling, irrational fears that prevent you from living your life. Something as simple as an offhanded remark made by a stranger can drive people into a deep-rooted anxiety without them ever realizing what the source is.
Both innate and learned fears can develop into an irrational fear; however, it is the learned fears that are less rational in nature. Because learned fears tend to stem from biases, there is not a real evolutionary reason to be afraid of them. Fear of large, carnivorous animals is a healthy fear but a fear of Brussel sprouts? This one has no purpose in your life because unless you choke on one, a Brussel sprout cannot hurt you physically or emotionally. It can only taste badly when its undercooked.
Psychologists suggest that people’s irrational fears develop alongside time and culture. A study from Chapman University found that Americans are most afraid of the following things:
- Identity theft
- Walking by themselves at night
- Being caught up in a mass shooting
- Safety online
- Speaking in public
Worrying about the loss of your social security number is not a fear that you are born with. In fact, it is a regional fear that only Americans can have and is driven by social and cultural cues. These social cues are compounded by the media and by the internet. When a small anxiety is fed by negativity from outside sources, even the most existential threats can begin to feel all too real.
Dealing with these fears is hard because it is impossible to say that these threats are not real. No one can tell you how you experience the world. No one can tell you that you will never be hurt in a mass shooting. Though, statistically speaking, you are more likely to be hurt by a predator like a shark than an anonymous human predator. Unfortunately, just because they are often a product of social conditioning does not mean that they are at all likely to happen, despite the low chances.
OVERCOMING YOUR FEARS
Understanding the difference between healthy fear and irrational fear is an essential part of overcoming your fears. There are some biological fears that you can lessen but should not be overcome. A no limits lifestyle is not the goal of overcoming your fears. However, those irrational fears that you have can make you feel crippled.
Before we dive into the step-by-step process on how you can overcome your fear, feel free to read about how buddhism teaches people to be less afraid.
1. Identifying Your Fear
The first step to overcoming your fear is to understand that you are afraid. Although it may sound obvious, sometimes fear can be confused with other emotions like anger or frustration.
Once you know that what you feel is fear, you can begin the process of identifying that fear.
It may be easy to identify on the surface. A fear of cliff diving is a more overt fear. However, some fears have deeper roots. A sincere fear of trains, talking to the opposite sex or the taste of broccoli are not natural fears. These fears will need further exploration if you want to identify the causes or roots of this fear.
This exploration is not easy. However, it is necessary. It is hard to overcome a fear that you have not recognized and identified. There is a good chance that a fear of broccoli is not a fear of green vegetables but instead stems from a negative experience that you once had with them.
2. Recognizing You Are Not Alone
Few people have fears that are truly unique, even if they seem completely irrational. In fact, many fears come down to one of the following basic fears:
- Fear of the truth
- Fear of an evil master
- Fear of what other people think
- Fear of nature
What this means for you is that you are not alone when you are afraid of things. Because of the natural fear that you are born with, everyone has some degree of fear naturally instilled in their brains.
Understanding that you are not alone in your fear helps reduce the anxiety that you may have around your fear. If a lot of other people live with these types of fear, it is easier to overcome it and begin to live your life without fear of these irrational things.
Knowing that you are not alone removes the sense of isolation from fear. Because other people are afraid, you are not a pioneer. In fact, if you are willing to talk to other people about how they overcame their fears, you can use what other people have learned to overcome your own.
3. Recognize That Anxiety Is Not Useful
Anxiety and fear often go hand in hand. Anxiety may feel like a coping mechanism when you are afraid but it is not a positive one. Although anxiety comes alongside fear, it should be avoided at all means. One of the symptoms of real anxiety is the tendency to over-think things to an extent that you compound your fears and actually make them worse. This is just one of the ways that a health level of fear can be transformed into an irrational fear.
People who are afraid might think of anxiety as a way to reduce fear. Often, many people will fixate on their fear and try to imagine every possible outcome of the situations surrounding their fear. Although you may feel like you are preparing, what you are actually doing is making things worse by thinking about negative outcomes that would probably never happen.
Instead of being anxious, be mindful of what you can and cannot do. This means recognizing your abilities to cope with the irrational threat. Rather than focusing on outcomes, think about your strengths and recognize that you can handle whatever life throws at you, even in a high stakes situation.
Being mindful also means recognizing those things that you are not in control of and accepting them. When you’re afraid, you might wish that you were more in control of your environment and the world around you. However, this is a lot more trouble than it is worth. Chances are if you were in charge of everything that happened around you, you would be a lot more anxious than you already are. Instead of trying to control your environment, it is important to remember that controlling your reactions to what happens around you is often more effective than trying to manipulate all of the variables around you.
4. Stop Doubting
Negativity is part of what turns fear into a destructive behavior or attitude. Instead of letting irrational fears turn your perspective into a defeatist attitude, you should turn these feelings around and use them positively.
Affirmations will help you cope with irrational fear because you can affirm that you are in control of your life and your feelings. Whether the fear is physical or existential, you can recognize that you deserve happiness rather than fear.
Instead of picturing another “worst case scenario” in your head, choose a positive picture instead. Meditate on that picture until the negative picture disappears. After all, the best way to achieve a positive outcome is to fixate on the positive rather than the negative.
The image that you place the most importance on will be the one that becomes a part of your though process. You do not want that image to be a negative one.
5. Understanding the Different Sides of Loss
Fear is often associated with loss. Whether it is loss of life or loss of face, this loss is often at the heart of your irrational fear. This is primarily because loss is, by definition, a negative thing.
Most people worry about what they stand to lose should their fears be realized. They do not think about what they stand to gain instead.
Instead, think about the opportunities that you are missing out on by being afraid. Rather than thinking about what you will lose if it goes wrong, consider what you will lose if everything goes well. Fear helps keep you safe. Being too safe means missing out on amazing opportunities from feeling truly alive to living out basic parts of your life.
6. Forgive Yourself
It is okay to be afraid sometimes. It helps keep your behavior in line. However, you need to avoid being hard on yourself for being afraid. You are not the first person to behave irrationally out of fear. You will not be the last person to do, so. Even if it happens time after time, the most important thing that you can do is forgive yourself. This will help you stop associating fear with negativity.
Forgiving yourself for your feelings is an important part of making the transition from irrational fear to healthy fear. It is also an important part of overcoming fear because it allows you to think more about why you felt afraid than focusing on the fear.
When you forgive yourself, you can begin stop-over thinking your anxiety and instead focus on taking care of yourself both physically and emotionally.
Irrational fears might feel crippling. Dealing with them is not easy but it does not have to be overwhelming either. If you are able to identify the root of your fear, it is a lot easier to think about why it makes you afraid. The goal of overcoming fear is not to be fearless. The goal of dealing with irrational fears is to understand your fear and then learn to associate it with positive thoughts rather than negative ones. Once you are able to do this, you are able to think about the best possible outcome of any situation and be able to forgive yourself if it feels too hard. When you can do this, you will find that life feels a little bit brighter.
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