When my fear is triggered, I can question things that in any other moment I know are quite secure. It’s something to respect about our humanity. Fear doesn’t just change how we think. Fear changes what we think.
Fear activates a kind of supercomputer that runs through an astounding number of possibilities, choices and strategies in mere seconds…all with the biological goal of keeping us safe.
There is a time for fear. It is a good and necessary tool for those moments we feel a truly threatened. But fear is a tool for the short-term. Long-term states of fear are exhausting and costly. They distort our moment-to-moment perceptions of reality and can distract us from our authentic long-term priorities.
I am always humbled when I look back and realize that an argument or period of productivity paralysis has been the result of overactive fear. It can happen so subtly.
We are complex beings. We have big ideas. We create gorgeous things. Our capacities for love, connection and generosity are amazing. But we also live in the real gritty world. If you are reading this in the first world, the threats to your physical safety are probably minimal.
The thing is though, our fear system responds to physical or emotional safety in the same way. A feeling of threat to either one can slip us into a powerful and primitive fear focus that controls our thoughts and behavior. If a lion is chasing you, this is very appropriate. But it can really just make things worse if the perceived threat is something like performance anxiety about a work presentation.
So how do we appreciate the good intentions of our fear, without letting it take control at the wrong time or for too long?
A much loved guard dog might be a good metaphor. We can appreciate the strength and protection that fear gives us. It’s always at the ready to protect us. But we must watch over and lead it. A guard dog is dangerous without oversight. Its instinctual vigilance can manifest into unchecked aggression or over-reaction to perceived but inaccurate threats. Just as a well-trained guard dog will always need a master, we must watch over our fear and mindfully pull it back in when the fear is no longer necessary.
How can you manage your fear well? Try any of these:
- Assume that your full emotional experience includes more fear than you may consciously recognize.
- Wonder about how secure you are feeling throughout your day. If you find that you are feeling a bit insecure in some way, respond in a nurturing rather than judgmental way. Have compassion for yourself. Think about keeping a list of affirmations that remind you of your internal and external resources.
- Expect that fear will forever be part of your emotional experience and oversee it instead of ignoring it.
- Watch for the moments that fear is helpful to you, but also get to know the common ways that fear can stay activated for too long. Awareness is power.
- Seek out the help of a coach or therapist if you need additional support.
There is different wisdom for different time horizons. Fear is our wisdom for immediate threats. But compassion is our best wisdom for the long-term.