I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is that this article is going to teach you how to stop fear from controlling your life. The bad news is that it’s going to do it by kicking you out of your comfort zone and making you face the things you’re afraid of.
(When you think about it, that’s also good news.)
Many of us have misconceptions of “fear”. We think of it as the big bad demon inside of us, stopping us from living our life to the fullest. All we wish is to kill the demon and live a fearless life.
As you’ll see in this article, this is simply not true. Not only is killing your fear impossible, it would be a very stupid thing to do. Like any other emotion, fear exists for a reason. It’s not always right, but it helps us more than we give it credit for.
However, if we don’t keep it under control and let it run our lives, it really can seem like an obstacle to be overcome. And in this case, it is possible to overcome it and keep it under control.
This article is going to give you a lot of cool ideas on how to do that.
What is fear, actually?
The simplest definition is that fear is an emotion induced by a threat. That threat can be real (a bear attacking you and trying to kill you) or it can be imagined (wind blows your balcony door open). As long as you perceive that there is a possible threat, fear will manifest.
Experiencing fear causes a change in brain and organ function and, consequently, a change in our behavior. We often fear a possible outcome, even though there might not be any real danger.
If we start getting down the boring explanations right at the start, you’re going to close this article and never come back. So let’s keep it fun.
Let’s grab an example and use it to explain how fear work.
How about fear of the dark? It is one of the most common fears humans universally possess. Fear of the dark isn’t a fear of the dark itself, but fear of perceived dangers or threats that may be hidden in the dark. As humans, we rely on our visual perception more than any other sense, so when that ability is taken away, we start to panic.
We begin to 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 we hear.
Historically, fear allowed humans to stay alive because it acts as a warning mechanism for avoiding things that might harm us. When confronted with a possible threat, our basic survival instinct is the fight-or-flight response. That is, when you perceive a threat, your mind tries to figure out what’s the best way to survive that threat. You can either engage it directly (fight) or run away from it (flight).
Different types of fear
In our modern society, fear has taken on a different purpose. Since most of us don’t face physical threats in our everyday routines, fear acts as a warning mechanism for our life choices. And in those situations, fear can be a flawed mechanism.
I mean, sure, it stops you from running into oncoming traffic and getting killed, but it also stops you from taking chances that might improve your life. Remember, fear activates even in response to a perceived threat. So if you want to, for example, get a better job, your fear will tell you: “Well, hold on there buddy. There a million ways this can go wrong. It’s just not worth the risk.”
Even though we hate to admit it, a lot of the time, your fear is right. You should be afraid of quitting your job if you don’t have a fallback. You should be afraid of starting a new company if your idea is stupid. You should be afraid to confront people in your life because you know they will push back.
Fear is a warning signal. It tells you: “Yo fam, this might go wrong. Better have your shit in check.” And that’s the real value of fear. It stops you from doing stupid things by keeping your mind on the consequences. It also forces you to make better choices by evaluating both the pros and cons.
On other occasions, it just doesn’t make sense. It stops you from doing things that will benefit you. But even then it’s useful, because the only way to become mentally stronger is to face your fears and overcome them. Without fear, there’s nothing to face and no way for you to grow.
As Winston Churchill supposedly stated: “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 warning mechanism we’ve got, even if it is flawed in many ways. It can be very useful, but it’s up to you to know when to listen to it and when to ignore it.
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.
And always acting solely on your emotions, disregarding more objective parts of the decision-making process, is a surefire recipe for disaster.
This just goes to show that it doesn’t matter whether the threat you fear is real or imagine — you will react the same.
Common “solutions” for dealing with fear
I’m betting this isn’t the first article you’ve read on overcoming fear. You probably google “how to stop being afraid” and found a bunch bullshit self-help articles giving you the same, recycle short-term solutions.
They probably include “solutions” like relaxing, slowing down your breathing, and avoiding stress. And while these are generally good tips, they are not dealing with the core of your problem. As I’ve previously explained, emotions can’t be avoided. Temporarily masking your fears or always trying to avoid things that scare you is a terrible strategy.
Even worse, when you try to suppress your fear, it comes back even stronger. You can try to bottle up your emotions as much as you can, but I guarantee you that they will eventually explore all over the place.
The harsh truth is that you can never get rid of fear completely. And even if you could, you shouldn’t want to. If you completely removed fear from your life, you know what would happen? You wouldn’t be scared of doing a lot of stupid shit, like jumping out of the window or wrestling a polar bear.
In an episode Never Fear, Batman is poisoned with a gas that makes him feel literally fearless. He basically turns into a maniac who doesn’t let anything stand in his way. This sounds good until you realize that Batman — whose one rule is to never kill — isn’t even afraid to kill. (You can stream the episode here.)
Fear itself is a useful warning mechanism. It just needs to be controlled from time to time so it doesn’t completely take over your life.
Fear teaches you about the dangers around you. 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 about the world, it’s still u to you to realize when you should listen to them and when you should not.
Here’s another real-world example.
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. I would watch a lot of cartoons during the day but, during the night, my mind would disfigure these cartoon characters in the most horrifying ways and turn them into monsters chasing me.
This affected my health, mood, and happiness in real life, as the nightmares often persisted for weeks on end. At their wit’s end, and extremely worried, my parents suggested an exercise they hoped would help me. Later I found out it was a variation of the empty chair technique, a technique used in Gestalt Therapy.
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. Having knowledge of my fears helped, but it didn’t put an end to them. I simply knew why they were happening, but my behavior remained unchanged. As a result, I resorted to the only thing I could control and 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 following story will illustrate why suppressing your fears is never the solution.
The only way to permanently overcome fear
The only way to permanently overcome your fear is essentially a two-step process.
- Accept that fear is always going to be a part of your life and that, like any other emotion, you can’t stop yourself from feeling it.
- Identify the causes of your fears and confront them in the most direct possible way. When making decisions, take everything into account, not just your emotions.
That’s really the entire formula. I know it’s not what you were looking for but, as we already explained, you can’t and shouldn’t want to remove fear completely. And trying to figure out how to do it will always leave you unsatisfied because it’s impossible.
On the other hand, you can and should want to control your fear. If you don’t your fear is going to consume every part of you. The longer you let this go on, the harder it is going to be to snap out of it.
For example, here’s how I managed to (accidentally) overcome my irrational fears that plagued my nightmares. As I already said, my solution was: “I’m going to avoid scary things forever. So no scary stories, cartoons, or horror movies.”
The problem with this approach is that you can’t ignore fear forever. Your fear lives inside of you, just waiting for the right trigger.
One random night, I was sitting alone 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. “Cool”, I thought.
“It must be an action movie” — I naively concluded. In case you’re not familiar with the franchise, it’s a horror movie about zombies. So… yeah.
As the movie progressed, things got more and more spooky, but I was interested to see what was going to happen. Just as I was at the edge of my seat, 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. I was sure this would 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 and totally not planned, I still faced my fears and pushed through my fear. 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:
- I faced my fears and saw that nothing bad happened.
- I saw people kicking zombies’ ass and felt empowered.
- Despite being in scary and terrifying situations, protagonists made it out. This showed me that no matter how big your fear is, you can always overcome it.
Much to my surprise, my nightmares didn’t get worse. In fact, I started having less of them because I continued to expose myself to the horror genre and have eventually gotten immune to everything that used to scare me.
In psychology, this is known as exposure therapy and is used to help people overcome their fears, anxieties, and phobias by exposing them to the source of their troubles. Over time, you desensitize yourself and your fear becomes smaller and smaller.
There are several ways of applying exposure therapy. The form I inadvertently went through is called flooding, which exposes you to the source of your fear in its worst form.
However, it’s not the most effective approach for most people. Instead, you should try a gradual approach, where you make a list of things that scare you and rate them on a scale of 1 (least scary) to 10 (most scary). Then you start at the bottom and gradually expose yourself to scarier and scarier things.
A variation of it called systematic desensitization also includes relaxation techniques throughout the process. I explained it further in my book on overcoming anxiety.
Facing your fears in cool and unusual ways
By the point, it should be crystal clear that the only way to overcome your fears is to expose yourself to them and face them in order to become stronger. Deep down, I’m sure you already knew this was the only option.
This is a super-scary thought. Even today, when I face new fears that enter my life, I still feel uneasy when I need to face them.
If fear has paralyzed you so much that you fear even taking the first step, I’ve come up with a list of cool, but unusual ways you can start exposing yourself to your fears in a safe environment.
1. Play Video Games
There have been several studies that suggest playing videos can help you face your fears and improve dealing with stress.
For example, one study found that soldiers who played video games exhibited less threats in their dreams. Soldiers with PTSD often relive the traumatic experience in their dreams, so this study suggests video games can help them reduce stress.
The same results were found in other studies. People who play more video games experience less threat in their dreams. The reason for this is probably that games teach you that you are in control. In most games, you aren’t helpless and can interact with the environment. Zombies? Monsters? Demons? You can conquer them all.
Studies have also shown that the fear you experience while playing video games is real — same as when watching scary movies — but even though you’re afraid, in the words of the study, “you enjoy it”.
The verdict is clear. Playing video games can help you face your fears in a safe environment and gradually desensitize you to them. The reason games work better than movies is because when watching a movie, you are just a passive observer. In games, you have to act and make choices.
Here are what I believe to be the best games for facing your fears:
- Alan Wake. You play as a writer who has to solve a mystery of his missing wife. You fight the monster of the darkness and your only weapon is a flashlight. It’s an intense thriller great for facing your fear of the dark.
- Left 4 Dead. Great game for facing fears of dark or monsters. You explore the dark ruins of a post-apocalyptic world and shoot a bunch of zombies. You always have three other characters with you, so you will never feel alone. Great for starting out.
- Dying Light. Another great zombie, but more intense than Left 4 Dead. You play as a parkour-runner in a zombie apocalypse. During the day, zombies are easy to kill and run away from. During the night, you are chased by zombies you can’t beat. Great balance of less/more scary.
- Tomb Raider. This reboot lets you play as the infamous Lara Croft, a badass archaeologist at the beginning of her career. After the shipwreck, she has to learn how to survive and become stronger. You start weak and helpless and turn yourself into a powerful character.
- The Walking Dead (Telltale Games). Even though this game is based on a comic book about zombies, it’s all about choices and human interaction. You have to face your fears by making choices that will have repercussions on the rest of the story. Great for building self-reliance and learning to take control.
There are plenty of other games that can help you face your fears in a safe space. They will depend on your specific fear, but the games on this list are a great starting point for getting into the right mindset. Give them a shot!
2. Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming is the ability to know you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. It’s a very real, scientifically-proven phenomenon which was the basis for the movie Inception.
Most people naturally experience a lucid dream at least once in their lifetime. But what makes it even cooler is that you can train yourself to lucid dream on a regular basis. You can “awaken” in a dream and learn how to control your dreams and do whatever you can imagine.
Seriously. It’s been proven. How awesome is that?
Lucid dreaming sounds amazing on its own. But where it really shines is in its possibility to examine your own subconscious. Multiple studies have shown that lucid dreaming can be used to deal with chronic nightmares and to improve the quality of your sleep.
In fact, this was the main reason I began lucid dreaming myself. You’ve heard how much nightmares used to trouble me as a kid. With lucid dreaming, I was practicing awareness in real life so I can practice facing my fears in my dreams. Just like that, the nightmares stopped and I felt more confident in my day-to-day life.
While these things can be a great first step in facing your fears, eventually you will have to start facing them in real life. So use these ideas to jumpstart your progress, not to avoid it.
In the end, overcoming fear is simple
Let me leave you with a funny story I read in a Mickey Mouse magazine when I was a kid. In the short comic, 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. After reading this article, you have no excuse not to overcome your fears.