What is Fear?
Fear is the expectation of pain.
Some fears are instinctual, such as fear of falling/heights and fear of loud noises. All the rest are learned – usually by the age of six. Learned fears are the result of thinking about something in the future and anticipating that it will cause you pain. Fear does not exist in the present. It doesn’t exist in the past. It exists in your head.
What is the Function of Fear?
All emotions have a purpose. Instinctive fears exist to keep us safe. When we respond to danger, the fear goes away. It happens almost instantaneously. However, since most fears are learned, we can hold on to them forever! As long as you are thinking about a bad thing that happened or a bad thing that could have happened, you are keeping fear alive. This fear isn’t keeping you safe. It’s making you sick.
How We Misuse Fear
When fear keeps you from living a full and happy life, it is being misused. Fear is not there to keep you immobilized. It is simply there as a warning signal. Some people like their fear because they think that it keeps them from getting into trouble. Fear is irrational. We can get reactive to all sorts of things that aren’t actually dangerous. Fear can keep us from going to college, going out on dates, being social, eating certain foods, engaging in sports, falling in love, or getting a job. Those things aren’t helpful.
Everyone will experience pain. It’s inevitable. When you try to put yourself in a protective bubble to avoid danger, you also avoid life. The better thing to do is to become more skillful in life so that things aren’t threatening and neutralize fear.
How to Neutralize Fear
Since fear is about projecting expectations onto future events, you can neutralize it by being present. Whatever you are concerned about isn’t happening now. There is no need to feel fearful now because it isn’t happening now. Here is a story that illustrates how this works.
A Japanese warrior was captured by his enemies and thrown into prison. That night he was unable to sleep because he feared that the next day he would be interrogated, tortured, and executed. Then the words of his Zen master came to him, “Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now.” Heeding these words, the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.
Relaxation also reduces fear. All emotions are accompanied by physiological changes. A fearful body is a tense body. If you reduce tension, you also reduce fear. If you are completely relaxed, you can’t feel fear at all.
Sometimes knowledge reduces fear, but this isn’t very reliable. Learning about the benefits of snakes, the rarity of snake bites, and which ones are actually dangerous doesn’t tend to help with a fear of snakes. Although fear is created and sustained by your thoughts, it’s not a rational thing.
However, there is a cognitive skill that can help. You can cope with fear by anticipating something useful, instead of pain, as the outcome. It may be hard to imagine that you would feel joyous at the dentist’s office, but you can probably anticipate that you will look better or feel better. You might be able to wonder what it would be like if something wonderful happened (like your dentist was very kind and gentle or this was the first time that you didn’t freak out at the dentist’s office).
When we say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” or “Every cloud has a silver lining” we are looking for the opposite possibility in a presumably negative situation. This can help you to make sense of your reality and cope with it. It keeps you from being overwhelmed by all the possible negatives in life. It keeps you balanced and grounded.
How to Make Fear Useful
All emotions have a purpose. When we allow the emotion to alert us to its function, then acknowledge the function and let the emotion go, our emotions serve their purpose. For example, the purpose of fear is to alert us to danger or keep us safe. You can make fear useful by doing something about the danger.
If I feel fear when viewing a spider, I can slow down and think, “How can I create safety in this moment?” There are many options. I can leave the room. I can kill the spider. I can rationalize that I am not really in danger. If I act on any one of them, there is no longer any need to fear.
If I feel fear when watching the evening news, I can get more information about the story. I can turn the news off. I can go speak with a friend or expert about the problem. I can talk about my fears. I can take action to address the problem. All of these things have the potential to create safety in the moment. As long as I am not projecting fear into the future and stay present, the fear will go away.
Fear is just a warning sign. Sometimes there is an actual danger. Sometimes there is not. The first step is to get present. Then assess the danger. Then act. When you get to the end of that three step process, the fear tends to be gone. It will stay gone as long as you are in the present moment.