Fear - our friendly companion or scary foe?
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.“
(Franklin D. Roosevelt)
According to the former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, the actual problem is fear itself - not the things we fear. In other words, there is nothing we ought to fear more than fear itself - as we have all experienced before how paralyzing it can be to our life. But couldn't fear also be a vital emotion that instinctively keeps us away from fatal decisions and life-threatening situations? Why has fear been our constant emotional companion for thousands of years?
The history of our emotions
Our fundamental emotions - such as fear - all exist for a reason. Evolution has equipped us with emotional tools that are designed to help us stay alive. This is why thanks to fear and other parts of our emotional survival kit, we did not go extinct during the course of millions of years. But how does fear protect us from life-threatening dangers?
Fight or flight
Imagine one of our ancestors being attacked by a big scary grizzly bear. Our ancestor will immediately go into fear mode and realize he now has two options - fight the bear or run away as fast as he can. His body has to be prepared for both scenarios, meaning his pulse needs to go up (to provide more energy), his pupils ought to expand (to increase the field of vision) and his hands will start sweating (from an evolutionary perspective this makes sense as it facilitates picking up and throwing stones). His thinking will narrow as his mind is only focused on these two options . The state of being afraid thus helps him cope with the danger at hand.
Times have changed
Lucky for us, it is not part of our daily life anymore to fight grizzly bears and survive in the wild. As the example above shows, fear was a hugely important survival mechanism in the past. And even though there are still situations in which we feel physically threatened, today most of us experience fear in situations that are not at all physically dangerous. The dreaded presentation at work, the math test we are less than prepared for, and - the classic of them all - the job interview that stands between us and our dream job. Almost certainly, these situations will call to action this lurking creature of fear inside of us because we know that if we fail, we will be faced with negative consequences and disappointment in ourselves.
Slowly advancing evolution
The problem is that in these situations, fear is not helping us at all. Quite the contrary, it actually sabotages our performance. As mentioned above, our mind narrows with fear so we are less likely to be creative and have an open mindset. On top of that, there is the dry mouth symptom we have all experienced before - another typical characteristic triggered by fear. Anyone who has ever tried to give a presentation with a dry mouth knows that it is not exactly flattering to our word flow. Rather, it sounds like weird crumbling bricks are stumbling out of us after having had a bag of sand for breakfast. In order words, what used to be necessary for our survival in the past, is now hindering us to realize our fullest potential in crucial situations. Our environment has developed rapidly since then but our emotions are still more or less the same.
4 ways to help you deal with fear
Thankfully however, we can learn to get used to situations which we are initially afraid of. Your first presentation at a new job is usually far more dreadful than your tenth one. Additionally, we can train ourselves to become better equipped against fear - which is why we want to talk about four useful ways to help make fear your friend.
1. Control your breathing: Consciously inhale through your nose and feel your lungs fill with air. Hold your breath a few seconds before releasing the air slowly through your mouth. This breathing method is also used in mindfulness training and has been shown to reduce stress .
2. Use fear's symptoms to your advantage: The symptoms your body experiences in a state of fear do not necessarily have to be seen in a negative way. Instead, use these symptoms as a means to boost your body with energy. This positive interpretation of physical symptoms is essential in dealing with fear .
3. Stay away from caffeine in anxiety-causing situations: Caffeine raises the heart rate and blood pressure and can increase the feeling of fear. So next time you have an important presentation at work, try substituting your morning coffee with a cup of tea instead.
4. Divide your work load: Fear is often a result of stress and too much work. In order to avoid feeling overwhelmed and stressed by your work load, it is useful to divide your work load into several smaller tasks that can be mastered step by step. That way, you will feel more in control and at ease with your work.
1: Eysenck, M. W. (1992). Anxiety: The cognitive perspective. Hove, England: Erlbaum.
2: Farb, N. A. S., Anderson, A. K., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., & Segal, Z. V. (2010). Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alter the Neural Expression of Sadness. Emotion, 10(1), 25-33.
3: Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 33(5), 677-684.