Fear is the essence of horror. So as a writer of horror fiction, naturally I’m an expert fear manager, right?
On paper, yes. In reality, I’m always more or less terrified of one thing in particular. And so are you, whether you realise it or not.
The Commonest Fear
Extreme fear is high profile. The list of phobias is endless. But the most common everyday fear is as insidious as is it crippling. Everyone suffers from it. “Not me!” you say? Think again. Think of…
…failure. Nobody wants to be a failure. No one wants people laughing at them. You may not call it fear, but your shoulders tense. You feel queasy and your palms become sweaty. All at the mere thought of failing to…
It doesn’t really matter what failure you dread. Missing a target in school, work or (other) social situations is a favourite, but we all remember at least one occasion where we dreaded our imminent and inevitable failure to act like a half-decent human being.
Fear of failure is annoying at best, and at worst debilitating. It can kill careers if left to roam unchecked. If worst comes to worst, it can even kill people.
Fear of failure is annoying at best, and at worst debilitating. Artists know it as “writer’s block” or “a creative blackout”. Business people know it as “indecisiveness” and “weakness”. It can kill careers if left to roam unchecked. If worst comes to worst, it can even kill people. At the very least, fear of failure keeps you from doing something you want to do.
You deserve better than that. You deserve a fighting chance.
Fear 101: The Basics
Fear is a fascinating subject, but you don’t need an in-depth psychology course to hack your fear of failure. What you do need to know about fear, is this:
- Fear is a primitive reaction to the appearance of a perceived threat. It’s the biological equivalent of a machine’s emergency mode. Telling yourself you don’t need to be afraid will not work, because the primitive part of our brain cannot reason. The ‘emergency switch’ is either on or off.
- Whether the threat is real or imagined is moot. The primitive brain doesn’t distinguish between a hypothetical predator and a real one: a lion is a lion is a lion, and lions eat humans so they are a threat. End of discussion.
- There are 3 possible responses to fear:
- ‘Fight’ – An aggressive reaction aimed at destroying the threat, preferably through violence. Kill the lion!
- ‘Flee’ – The drive to act is directed at running away, hiding or otherwise putting a safe distance between you and the lion.
- ‘Freeze’ – Like a deer caught in a car’s headlights, you do not run or do not defend yourself. You simply stand there as the lion mows you down.
- You can’t reverse fear. You can only ride it out. On the bright side, the physical discomfort of fear fades quickly once the brain turns off the emergency switch. Did you know that the shaking in your limbs after a scary situation is your body’s way to speed up the recovery process?
The physical discomfort of fear fades quickly once the brain turns off the emergency switch.
So the key to hacking your fear is convincing your brain to resume normal operations. But how do manage that when fear dominates your every thought?
The body’s internal communications doesn’t rely on words, but on chemical cocktails. And just as a spike of certain hormones automatically trigger the emergency mode of fear, so a change in the body’s chemical balance automatically takes the brain out of that emergency mode.
Human bodies are like cars: you do not need to know how they work in order to drive them in the right direction.
Sounds complex? So are cars, but you do not need to know how they work in order to drive them in the right direction.
Think of your body as an organic machine: pull a lever and it responds. The trick is to know which lever to pull. Once you do, you can hack your body’s internal communications and stop your fear from taking over control.
Here is how.
Step 1: Determine how you are responding to fear.
Not all fears are equal. Take stock of your behaviour (or ask someone you trust for their observation) to discover which of the three responses are at work:
- Are you cursing at how unfair your situation is? How others have it better or easier? (fight)
- Are you procrastinating by doing household chores or suchlike? (flight)
- Are you hiding in bed, or in binge-watching movies or a TV show, or are you drinking/eating when not really thirsty/hungry? (flight)
- Are you staring into space/at a computer screen? (freeze)
These are just a few questions to show you what to look for. What are you doing instead of that what you need to do?
Step 2: Redirecting the drive that your fear triggered.
All 3 possible responses are caused by a host of chemical reactions in your body. Adrenaline is the best known factor in this process: the stress hormone that makes you want to do something – anything!
The problem is that while your brain is in emergency mode, that drive is solely focused on dealing with fear. So you need to redirect that energy:
- When you fight – Go do something physical. Train, run, do a chore that requires heavy lifting. The adrenaline in your blood will burn up faster when you exert your muscles, and as soon the adrenaline level has dropped, your brain will automatically drop out of emergency mode.
- When you flee – You are already in motion (often literally) but it is aimless: you are running away from something instead of toward a goal. Redirecting directly to what you meant to do is counterproductive at this stage. First try to sit still for a while and think of something not related to the tasks at hand. A hot cup of coffee or tea helps. The heat in the pit of your stomach tricks the mind into calming down. Alternatively, do some menial tasks or do physical training to help get rid of excess adrenaline.
- When you freeze – This is both the most difficult and the easiest to come out of. The difficulty lies in the fact that you need to get moving – literally – when your instincts tell you not to. What makes it easier is that because you are not yet moving, you can – with baby steps – start moving directly towards the intended goal. The trick here is to get started with the smallest increment of action you can come up with. “Can I just… get out of bed?” for example. This article by Derek Doepker explains how and why this works for everything you want to get up and do but can’t.
Whatever your situation, you will find that once you can take your mind off that which you fear, the physical effects of being afraid will gradually diminish and disappear. You will feel calmer, better, and likely more confident about the task at hand, too: your brain’s normal operations are resuming.
Step 3: Check and Balance
Fear is tenacious, the chemical cocktail it causes addictive. The physical effects can become less noticeable in a matter of minutes, but beware of premature celebrations. It takes time for those chemicals to leave your bloodstream. While they are still present, the feeling of fear can kick in again extremely fast.
So as you go through Step 2, be honest with yourself about how you feel. Don’t blame yourself for needing a few tries. Or a few more. Your boss or a deadline may be breathing down your neck, but you won’t be able to perform to the best of your abilities while you are still afraid.
With a little practise, you will be surprised at how fast you can go from frightful to focused.
Step 4: Find out what works for you
Calm again? Good. But you’re not done yet.
Being afraid is human and fear raises its ugly head more often than we care to count. Just because you have found courage once is no guarantee for the future. To illustrate: I may have held a tarantula on my hand, called it cute and meant every word, but I still cringe whenever I see a fat garden spider.
Facing your fear isn’t a one-off. You will have to do it time and again.
That is why you need to experiment with what method calms you quickly and effectively.
- Does working out help? Then take it a step further and see if it makes a difference whether you lift weights or do cardio training.
- If household chores help you calm your mind, perhaps ironing shirts works better than hoovering or vice versa.
- Frozen? Perhaps taking a hot shower helps, or maybe you find that you prefer to do other small activities first to get moving.
- Call a friend, talk to a co-worker, consult your doctor or a psychologist if that makes you feel more comfortable.
Try different solutions and learn what they do for you – or don’t do. Record your results for future reference, for example in a journal.
Step 5: Creating a habitual battle tactic
Whatever you find works best for you, make this a habit.
Every time your fears engulf you and hinder you in doing what you want to do, apply your preferred methods. Every time. Again, not all fears are equal, so your approach may vary depending on the situation. The important thing is that whenever you are scared, you do something to break away from its grasp.
This repetition will breed a habit that becomes increasingly easy to deploy when you need it.
Whatever you find works best for you, make this a habit.
Fear and fear management are fascinating subjects. There are more ways to hack your fears and take control of your brain’s emergency switch, but these steps will get you good results with the least effort. They have been tried and tested by yours truly, for years and under the most adverse conditions, and I can vouch for them.
Of course I cannot promise you that if you follow these steps, you will never be afraid again. No one can make such a promise. After all, fear is also a survival technique we actually need. But knowing what you know now, you do hold the power to reduce crippling fears to a manageable nuisance.
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