“How do I get rid of fear in my life?”
That’s probably what’s on your mind right now. But don’t worry, I can help. If you don’t know me, I’m Phil and I help people change their mindset with psychology.
And when I see someone crippled by fear, I’m overcome with a mixture of compassion, sadness, and irritation.
On one hand, I feel sorry for the person because I know the feeling. On the other, I’m furious at them for tiptoeing around the issue and not trying to proactively solve the problem.
Well, good news.
After finishing this article, you will have no excuse for not dealing with the things you fear. So keep on reading and get ready to, quite literally, face your fears.
To beat your enemy, you must first understand it. So let’s kick this off by seeing what fear actually is and how it works.
What is fear, actually?
In short, fear is an emotion induced by a threat.
Experiencing fear causes a change in brain and organ function and, consequently, a change in our behavior. It isn’t just a response to a real threat, but also only a perceived one.
We often fear a possible outcome, even though there might not be any real danger. When confronted with a possible threat, our basic survival instinct is the fight-or-flight response.1Fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction in response to a threat. Historically, it allowed humans to stay alive because it acts as a warning mechanism for avoiding things that might harm us.
In the modern society, fear has taken on a different purpose.
Since most of us don’t face physical threats in our everyday routines, fear acts a warning mechanism for our life choices.
Sure, it stops you from running into oncoming traffic and getting killed, but it also stops you from taking chances. No matter how beneficial the possible outcome, your fear will always kick in to say: “Well, hold on there buddy. There a million ways this can go wrong, it’s just not worth the risk.”
Even though I hate to admit it, a lot of the time, your fear is right. But there’s a catch.
Winston Churchill once said:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”
The same way, fear is the best defense mechanism we’ve got, even if it is flawed in many ways.
Always giving into fear is emotional reasoning, because you don’t objectively weigh the likelihood of each possible outcome. Instead, you simply act on how you feel at the moment.
Oh, and in case you don’t know, emotional reasoning is a cognitive process that distorts your perception of reality. Or to put it more simply: it is a very bad thing and you should avoid it. 2Emotional reasoning happens when someone concludes that their emotional reaction proves something is true, regardless of the observed evidence.
Is fear the same as phobia?
The short answer is: no. Fear is an emotion. Phobia is an anxiety disorder.
Think of it like this: All of us experience moderate level fears in our everyday lives. But if that fear is not moderate, but extreme, and persist for more than 6 months, it’s a phobia.
Take, for example, fear of the dark.
It is one of the most common fears humans universally possess. We rely on our visual perception to a great extent, as we use it for processing information about their environment.
When that ability is taken away, we feel anxious and uneasy. Just like blind people, we start relying more on our other senses, which is why we suddenly focus on every scratch, noise or an unknown sound. However, most of us aren’t afraid of darkness itself, but of possible or imagined dangers that lurk in the shadows.
Phobia is often referred to as “irrational fear” for this very reason. While it’s true that you can’t see if there really is something in your dark room, the chance of a blood-thirsty murderous clown hiding under your bed is… not very likely.
But to someone suffering from nyctophobia, this will seem not only likely but real. In turn, they will experience very real side effects like trouble breathing, sweating, and nausea. 3Nyctophobia — a phobia characterized by a severe fear of the dark
Okay, so is the distinction clear now? Great.
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, let’s move on to methods for actually dealing with fear.
Common “solutions” for dealing with fear
Ah, the Internet. The place of “5 tips” for everything.
Most solutions you’ll find online don’t deal with actually overcoming fear. Instead, they usually focus on short-term solutions that make you feel empowered, for like 5 minutes, and then you’re right back where you started.
Another common method is to suggest suppressing it and avoiding confrontation. This never made sense to me.
You can never get rid of fear completely. And you shouldn’t!
As you’ve seen above, fear is our natural defense mechanism against everything that might harm. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best one we’ve got.
Fear teaches you about the dangers around you!
But just like any teacher, they don’t know everything and they don’t know what’s best for you all the time. So while their job is to help you and educate you, sometimes you have to go against the grain.
When I was a kid, I used to have intense chronic nightmares, every single night.
The cause of these bad dreams were ghastly cartoon villains. Since I have a powerful imagination, my dream scenarios often disfigured them in the most horrifying ways.
This affected my health, mood, and happiness in real life, as the nightmares often persisted for weeks on end.
My parents started getting worried about me and, after consulting with the doctors, they helped me apply a variation of the “empty chair technique”. 4The empty chair technique is a form of Gestalt therapy in which the subject visualizes the person or a thing that causes them emotional discomfort and talks to them to overcome their issues. Hence, the “empty chair”.
I would draw my nightmare characters on a piece of paper, then talk to them, ask them who they were, and why they keep attacking me.
I would tell them I am not afraid of them, tear up the paper, and throw it in the trash. This was supposed to make me feel empowered and unafraid of these imaginary foes. I would have gotten to the bottom of my issues, realized what elements from the cartoons inspired my nightmares, ultimately demystifying my nightmare scenarios.
But my nightmares didn’t stop.
Knowledge of my fears didn’t put an end to them. I simply knew why they were happening, but I’d still react the same way as always. As a result, I decided to avoid watching scary things and suppress my fear. As you’ll soon see, this “solution” didn’t work.
Avoiding a problem doesn’t make it go away. It just makes you more afraid.
The only way to permanently overcome fear
Did I tell you about the time I accidentally faced my fears? No?
Well, here’s what happened:
Being unable to cope with my irrational fears, I decided to avoid any stimuli that could potentially make me scared. This led to “no horror movies of any kind” policy, which sucked because I’ve always been a movie buff. Still, I figured watching horror movies would make my nightmares worse, so I never, ever watched them under any circumstances.
Until one time, I accidentally did.
One random night, I was sitting in my room, watching TV when a movie titled Resident Evil was about to start. I didn’t really know what it was about but remembered seeing the poster for the movie that displayed some hot girl holding a rifle.
“It must be an action movie” — I naively concluded.
As the movie progressed, things got more and more spooky, but I was interested to see what was going to happen. Then, suddenly, disfigured zombies started walking out of a mist, growling like nightmarish creatures of the night.
At that moment, I literally froze and continued sitting in on my bed, unable to turn away. Even after the movie ended, I continued sitting in the same position, completely paralyzed.
“I have just watched a horror movie.”
It had scary hallways, walking corpses, and creepy girl holograms. This was sure to give me nightmares for the rest of my life. But as I was contemplating what all of this might mean for my mental health, I realized that… I wasn’t really scared. Shaken up, sure, but not scared.
For the first time in my life, I had faced my fear and changed my reaction. Instead of running away, I stayed.
Even though it was accidental, I faced my fears and stuck it out. I could’ve shut my TV off at any point during the movie, but I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. I faced my fears and saw that nothing bad happened. In fact:
1. I faced my fears and saw that nothing bad happened.
2. I saw people kicking zombies’ ass and felt empowered.
3. Despite being in scary and terrifying situations, protagonists made it out (sort of).
Much to my surprise, my nightmares didn’t get worse. In fact, I started having less and less of them, because I continued to expose myself to the horror genre and have eventually gotten immune to it.
In psychology, this form of behavioral therapy is known as flooding, because the subject is exposed to the source of their fear in its worst form. 6Flooding (psychology)
Depending on the level and the intensity of your fears, complete immersion may not be the best option. Instead, you should aim to slowly expose yourself to the things you fear and keep increasing the level and the duration of your exposure.
This is known as exposure therapy, where instead of completely flooding yourself with your worst fears all at once, you slowly increase the level of exposure over time. 7More information on Exposure therapy
The only way you will ever be able to overcome fear is to face it and embrace it.
You need to form a realistic outlook on fear and gradually expose ourself to the things you fear. Sorry, no easy street there.
Unusual (but effective) solutions
If you decide that completely exposing yourself to your fears, like I did, is too much for your frail heart, that’s fine. After all, if I had a choice, I would have probably gradually exposed myself as well, just like any other sane person.
The question is — how?
Some solutions are pretty straightforward. Hate spiders? Slowly expose yourself to them. Afraid of the dark? Spend more and more time in the dark on purpose. Anxious when watching horror films? Start by watching clips, then a movie, then more movies.
But there are also a plethora of more creative ways to tackle this.
For example, a way to confront the fear of the dark can be playing Alan Wake, a video game where the enemy is literally darkness and your main weapon is a flashlight. I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers and this game offers a creative way of tackling your fears.
It’s also worth noting that it’s been researched that playing video games can help you fight off your nightmares. In most games, you have the ability to fight back and control the main character, making you the hero, rather than a victim. 9Video Gamers Can Control Dreams, Study Suggests – LiveScience
Another out of the box method, which I’ve personally used, is practicing lucid dreaming. In short, it is a scientifically proven ability of controlling your dreams (and you can develop it with practice). 10Scientific research into lucid dreaming
While an interesting by itself, I decided to give it a real shot after experiencing nightmares for 10 full days in a row. Not only did they made me feel like shit all night, the effects carried over into my real life as well.
I’ve known about lucid dreaming and have practiced it for a short period of time before this, so I generally knew how it works. After implementing the most basic methods for only a few days, I stopped having bad dreams and have significantly reduced the number of nightmares in the long-term.
Lucid dreams can provide a safe environment for facing and overcoming your fears and dealing with your issues. Because of it, they are on occasion even used for dealing with chronic nightmares. 11Lucid dreaming treatment techniques
However, nothing can substitute facing your fears in real life.
All of this reminds me of a comic I read as a kid. It was just a few frames from an old Mickey Mouse magazine. In it, Mickey kept dreaming about being chased by three evil creatures. He had this dream every single night, so he became completely exhausted in real life.
After a talk with Goofy, he tried a different approach; once the figures started chasing him, he turned to them and said “Listen guys, I’m not feeling up to it tonight. Want to do something else instead?”
They ended up playing cards and Mickey finally had a good night’s sleep.
The more you idolize and mysticize fear, the greater control it will have on you.
Embrace fear as part of your life, but don’t let it stop you from doing what you want. If I had given into my fear, I would’ve never watched horror movies and would be shocked and terrified by any violent scene.
As it turns out, I love horror films and I’m an even bigger fan of the (now cliché) zombie genre. The only TV show I have anticipated before its launch was The Walking Dead and I couldn’t wait to play Dying Light (just imagine combining zombies with parkour).
Horror now present a thrill for me, rather than a threat.
Learning to welcome fear as part of my life gave me an unexpected freedom, and I’m sure that you can obtain the same end result.
The only question that remains is: what are you afraid of?
No, wait, scratch that… all of us have fears. Your specific fear does not matter. What matter is this:
What are you prepared to do about it?
P.S. Want to control your fear and anxiety? Check out rules of a strong mindset.