Is fear holding you back from trying something new or going after what you really want? Here are some ways to get past it.
I hate fear. Fear has cost me a hefty sum in dental bills from grinding my teeth. Fear interferes with sleep, digestion, and many other things that make life worth living. When you examine some of the worst things human beings have done, you'll often find fear as the root cause. There's no doubt about it: Fear sucks.
I wish I could say that I'm a fearless person, but I'm not. At best, I'm a person who does some frightening things even though I may be terrified while doing them. I've run for president of ASJA, scuba-dived through a wreck 100 feet down, even gone skydiving--once. More important, I know for a professional writer, as for any entrepreneur, professional survival requires fighting down your fear and finding courage, time and again. I know that every time I let fear hold me back from something I know I really want to do, it clips my wings just a little bit. So I've tried every trick I can find or come up with to get over being afraid.
Here's what's worked best for me over the years. (And if you've found something else that works, I'd love to hear it!)
1. Ask yourself: Should I take action to solve this fear?
You wake up in the middle of the night. You're terrified that the promotional copy on your new website isn't compelling enough and no one will buy your product or service. If your site is launching next week, it might make sense to rewrite some of that copy or get a copywriting expert to evaluate it. If your site launched last week, it's smarter to wait and let analytics tell you precisely what is and isn't working. In general, it makes sense to trust that the earlier you who made a decision was at least as smart as you are now.
All fears are not created equal. Some are useful, and some are useless fears that you can't or shouldn't do anything about. They sap your strength for no reason, and you should put those fears in their place. Worrying about a comet striking Earth falls in this category.
2. Remind yourself that fear can harm you.
Fear evolved for a very good reason--to keep us safe. But in many situations, it actually endangers us. I don't just mean in the sense that stress and worry can destroy your health, although they certainly can. I mean in more immediate ways. In scuba diving, for instance, fear can cause you to breathe too fast, swim too hard, move too suddenly, fail to take note of your surroundings, or rise too quickly toward the surface. (I know--I've done every one of these.) The same thing can happen in other high-pressure situations, such as if fear causes you to mumble or fail to focus on your audience while giving a presentation.
Knowing that fear has the potential to harm you can help you set it aside. Fold up the fear, put it in a box, and promise you'll get back to it later at a less dangerous time.
3. Remember that fear is just chemicals.
You may think it's your judgment deciding that something is dangerous and you should be afraid, but what actually happens is that fear chemicals are flooding into your brain. Experiments have shown that fear can be induced artificially by injecting these chemicals. (Another way we all know this is that most of us get more timid as we age. It's not that the world's gotten more dangerous; it's that our brains process chemicals differently.)
Do the chemicals know what you should and shouldn't be afraid of? Of course they don't. You do.
4. Enlarge your comfort zone.
Have you ever watched someone not from an urban area encounter an escalator? He or she often finds it frightening. People who never fly are often terrified of getting on a plane, whereas they don't fear driving, even though statistically, that's the more dangerous activity.
The more we stick with what's familiar, the more frightened we'll be every time we encounter the unfamiliar. So seek out unfamiliar territory--try new things, stretch yourself professionally, risk being seen as a fool. I have a sign on my office wall that reads "Did you do something scary today?" It's a good reminder to keep stretching beyond my comfort zone.
5. Do something to engage your cognition.
One good way to take back your brain from chemicals that are flooding it is to do something that engages your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that reasons. There are a few ways to do this, but one of them is to focus on problem solving, such as doing a crossword puzzle, bookkeeping, responding to business emails, or other such emotionally neutral activity. I personally find that sitting down at my desk to work always helps me temper an emotional storm.
6. Name your fears.
Naming your fears always takes some of the power out of them. So telling a friend, your partner, or your spouse what you're most afraid of can be a great way to cut those fears down to size. I find it's very helpful to write them down. The simple act of doing that causes my thinking brain to kick in, and even as I'm writing the words, it begins coming up with solutions and backup plans in case my fear comes to pass.
7. Meditate, or at least stop and breathe.
Meditating (sitting quietly and trying to clear your mind of all thought while you focus on a word or phrase, or simply your breath) can make a huge difference to brain function, even if you do it for only five minutes a day. But sometimes a daily meditation practice of even a few minutes is hard to maintain. (I don't manage to do it, even though I know it works.) If so, you can still help yourself, especially when you're feeling afraid, by simply stopping for a few moments and focusing on your breath. Filling your brain with oxygen will help it drive out fear.
8. Embrace your fear, then let it go.
One of the most effective antifear tricks I've ever found happened when I was on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica two years ago. At the time, my life was more full of uncertainty than usual. My husband and I wanted to relocate. Our finances were more precarious than usual. Not only that, the day before I left for the trip, a small rental house that we own was badly damaged in a fire.
Far from home, there was little I could do to solve our problems or even communicate much. Things would work themselves out--our insurance would pay for rebuilding the house, and we would get our finances in order. But at the time, my fears were running wild. Finally one day, I decided I was sick of it. I was in a yoga class at the time, so I gave myself permission to wallow in my worries for as long as the class went on. When it was over, I told myself, I would be finished with useless fear.
It worked better than I expected. I was able to stop fretting and enjoy the rest of the trip. And even now, when I find myself grappling with useless fear, I remind myself that I'm finished with that, and it helps.
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