This type of fear can be limiting and restrictive because it keeps us playing small within the confines of our comfort zones and holds us back from change and growth.
Fear is also a hugely essential part of human survival. It triggers a physical response to help us escape danger, it encourages us to stop and think before taking risks, it can help us learn from mistakes and it pushes us to make good decisions for our wellbeing.
Sally was walking along a beautiful path on a warm and sunny day when she noticed a sudden movement near her feet. She felt a flash of fear, her heart rate increasing and her muscles tensing immediately, and she looked down to see a snake. Fortunately, the snake was frightened, too, and slithered away. Sally breathed a sigh of relief and continued walking. However, she was also a little more cautious, deciding not to walk through sections of long grass and paying some attention to the ground where she was putting her feet.
In another situation, Lacy also experienced fear when her friends asked her to go on an overseas adventure with them. Lacy was worried her friends would get sick of spending time with her because she could be awkward and quiet, leaving Lacy feeling more and more afraid of going on this adventure. Lacy made up an excuse not to go on the trip and then felt sad and disappointed about missing out. She knew that if she could’ve surpassed her fear, she probably would have experienced some rich and connective times with her friends and spent time in a new place, with delicious food and beautiful scenery.
In Sally’s situation, fear helped her prepare for danger and to be more careful in the future. However, Lacy’s fear held her back from a potentially fun and meaningful experience and contributed to her experiences of regret and sadness.
Being afraid can be helpful or limiting depending on the situation you’re facing. Unfortunately, as you can see from Sally and Lacy’s experiences with fear, the physical sensations of fear were similar- they both felt an increase in their heart rates, a sense of dread and a readiness to escape the perceived danger. It’s not always easy to tell if fear is helpful or restrictive! So, the challenge is learning to distinguish what you’re really afraid of.
Are you afraid of something because it’s dangerous and poses an actual risk to your wellbeing?
Or, are you afraid of something because it’s going to push you out of your comfort zone?
If you realize that restrictive fear is holding you back, then it’s time to find the courage to work through it. Remember that it’s ok to feel scared, stressed, worried, nervous, or uncertain. In fact, these are often emotions which accompany important changes and new experiences and personal growth! The key is to balance these vulnerable emotions with meaningful self-care, self-compassion and support.
Exposure therapy is a cognitive-behavioral treatment which allows you to face your fear in safe environments and slowly build up your tolerance for that type of fear. For example, imagine one of your big goals in life is to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but you’re terrified of heights. You could use exposure therapy by determining an exposure hierarchy; between 10 and 15 situations which would gradually expose you to your fear (starting with the easiest situation to cope with and ending with the most challenging).
First of all, you might watch a video featuring shots from up high and use a relaxation technique (such as deep breathing) to help you manage any fear which might arise. Then, you might move on to climbing a stepladder, then standing near a window on a third floor apartment, then doing an indoor rock-climb, and so on, until you feel more ready to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
It’s important to take this process slow, ensuring you feel supported and safe as much as possible. It can also be really helpful to work with a mental health professional, who can guide you and help you stay accountable!
Whenever you face something you’re afraid of, it’s normal to feel challenged in some way. Show yourself compassion by acknowledging that it’s a tough situation you’re going through and remind yourself that you’re doing really well! Try talking to yourself in the same way you would encourage a friend through a challenging situation; be kind, supportive, motivating and helpful.
For example, try using phrases like:
Fear is not your enemy! I’s simply a protective mechanism trying to keep you safe from potential harm and help you escape what it perceives as danger. However, fear is not always a sign that you need to give up! If there’s a predator you need to run away from, then fear will help you get away. But if you’re facing an important work meeting, or an intimidating social situation, or a new opportunity, then fear can just be acknowledged and accepted as part of the journey (not a sign forcing you to go back!).
So, next time you experience fear, don’t forget to find out what you’re actually afraid of. If it’s fear of growing, going out of your comfort zone, achieving a new goal, making a change, or trying something new, then it may be a great opportunity to use those fear management tips and bust through it!