I have no fear of death. More important, I don’t fear life.
— Steven Seagal
A Steven Seagal quote? I know, but stick with me.
Fear is an essential human emotion. It’s hardwired into our brains in a dozen different ways. And for much of human history, fear (and its cousin anxiety) kept us safe in a world full of dangers.
Avoiding dangerous animals or situations kept us alive longer. Anticipating attacks meant precautions could be taken. Fearing starvation or death from exposure meant we could make preparations.
But as with much of our instinctual thinking, the modern world throws a wrench into processes that were once very good for us.
Today, you probably don’t face lion attacks or invading hordes, but our fear and anxiety haven’t gone away. As our access to the world has grown, so has our level of fear. That means you probably still have personal fears (Am I good enough? or Is my family safe?) but you may also have larger fears (Could the nation collapse? or Will I be killed by a terrorist?)
Take a look at the top US fears from the from 2016 Chapman Fear Survey.
Based on these findings, a huge number of us are dealing with anxiety about the same things that have always scared us (the health and well-being of ourselves and loved ones), but we also face entirely new issues like government collapse or being replaced by robots. And these don’t even capture the dozens of smaller fears that most people deal with on any given day, things like fearing failure or ridicule.
It’s no surprise that the National Institutes of Health found that almost a third of the US adult population will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. And those are just cases where the anxiety level is defined as “excessive”; because of course, most of us will deal with various levels of anxiety every day.
This should worry us. In lab experiments, anxiety has been shown to affect the decision-making process, making it harder for us to accurately assess long term consequences or weigh risks and rewards.
This can lead us to become overly risk averse and to prioritize reducing uncertainty above all else. For anyone who’s waffled over changing jobs or writing that first book, the feeling is probably familiar.
We can become paralyzed by the “what ifs” that we create in our mind. We imagine future possibilities that are totally unrealistic or beyond our control, but they worm their way into our consciousness and play in our brains like a bad rerun on cable TV.
So what can you do about it?
As every middle school coming of age story taught us, you have to face your fear.
Face the anxiety
First things first, you’ve got to name the problem. If there’s something you’ve been afraid of (a project you’ve never started or finished, a conversation you can’t bring yourself to have, or a life choice you’ve been delaying), you have to recognize the reason you’ve been avoiding the next step.
Maybe it’s a fear of not being good enough. Maybe it’s a fear of admitting to the world that you really are a model train enthusiast in your heart.
Whatever the case, you can never overcome the roadblock of fear until you can see it standing in your way.
Why is it scary?
Once you’ve named your fear, you can have an honest conversation with yourself about it. Are you afraid to have a conversation with your boss because they might get mad and fire you? Are you afraid to write the book because the world might not care what you have to say? Are you afraid to tell someone how you really feel because they may not reciprocate?
What’s the worst case scenario?
Ok, so what’s the worst that can happen? Be honest about this.
When we faced lions and midnight raids, the worst that could happen was really, really bad. But most of our modern anxieties just don’t have the same consequences.
None of my professional fears will kill me. Even my fear of spiders is very unlikely to be lethal. Just about any anxiety that I have personally is more likely to result in temporary discomfort than long-term death or dismemberment.
What can you do about it?
Here’s a step that a lot of people skip. If you look back at the Chapman Fear Survey results, you’ll see a lot of fears that you can do very little about.
Experts will tell you that voting, running for office, and/or regularly engaging with your elected officials is about all you can do to prevent government collapse. Worried about terrorism? Stay aware of your surrounding and have emergency plans in place for those things that you can plan for. Other than that, there’s not much you can do.
We tend to worry about things as a way to exert our willpower on the world. We want to decrease the likelihood of negative events on our lives and fear can be motivation for us to take preventive action. But when we get stuck in an anxiety spiral, worrying without a way to action, the fear can become chronic and debilitating.
If you can define actions, even small ones, that can help avoid negative outcomes, it can empower you to face your fear. Instead of being helpless in the face of an outcome, you know have a tiny portion within your control.
Prioritize rewards instead of risks
Let’s say I record a song and put it on YouTube. Worst case scenario, either no one watches or an anonymous 14-year old calls me a name. I can probably deal with that.
I write a book and self-publish on Amazon. Worst case scenario, I sell three copies to people I know.
But either way, I’ve now become one of those rare people that puts themselves out there, a proverbial “creator”. I’ve got the opportunity to practice what I love and improve.
Too often, we look at the potential risks and decide that actions aren’t worth it. And certainly “some risk” vs “no risk” is an easy decision. But if you properly evaluate the risk/rewards for action and non-action, you’ll see huge disparities.
What if my YouTube video blows up? I could be the next Chocolate Rain!
What if my book is a surprise hit? I could be the next 50 Shades or The Martian!
But I’m guaranteed not to have those successes if I never try.
Fear is a powerful emotion. And because it’s helped us survive in an uncertain world, we’ve learned to trust those twinges of uncertainty.
But the modern world isn’t where our fear response developed. It tends to overreact given the size, complexity and uncertainty of modern decisions.
Being an active agent in evaluating your own fear and anxiety can give you the power to take back control, remove your unconscious limits and reach for the things you want most.