Fear is primal and ubiquitous. It’s a natural emotional reaction that developed, through evolution, to keep us alive. Today, we rarely encounter truly life-threatening situations, such as getting chased by a 600-pound grizzly bear or an invasion by a marauding horde from a nearby village. So why does fear still hold most people back from doing the things they want to do in life?
It’s an interesting question, and I’m sure you’d like an answer. Why, for example, is public speaking the number one fear of most adults? There’s no danger of a grizzly bear eating you for lunch. Just a room full of your fellow human beings waiting to hear what you have to say. Well, the same biological and neurochemical responses get triggered when you are facing a speaking engagement because, for whatever reason, you feel threatened.
Fear is an immediate, physiological response to a threat of genuine danger in your environment. So when we feel fear in a situation when there’s no real threat of genuine danger, we need to start asking some deeper questions about why this fear or anxiety is bubbling up in the first place.
My Irrational Fear of Cold Calling
When I first got started in business, cold calling was the only technique I knew to open up conversations that could lead to sales. I was able to churn through a sheet of phone numbers, unemotionally, using whatever cookie cutter sales script that was provided by the company. But when I started prospecting for clients in my OWN business, somehow, things felt different.
My goal was to set up appointments with local businesses to try to sell them my social media marketing services. So, I worked my way through the Google search results and reviewed the websites of restaurants, bars and hairdressers nearby.
Before I even got on the phone with the business owner, I started making assumptions based on their website. I would tell myself, “This company looks like they are doing a good job on their own, why would they need me?” I was doubting myself before I even started! My irrational fear was creeping in.
When it was time to actually make those first few calls, I picked up the phone, filled with absolute dread. My hands were sweaty and my heart was beating out of my chest. I took a deep breath, dialled the number and waited with bated breath. When someone answered, I nervously rattled off my script with just about as much conviction as the Ku Klux Klan campaigning for racial equality.
What was wrong with me? All I was doing was speaking to another human being through the telephone! Upon reflection, I realized there were a few things at play here.
First, I was afraid to get rejected. In my mind, I would be a failure. Such rejection would cause me to believe that no one wanted my services. This line of reasoning triggered the irrational fear that my entire business might fail. My friends and family would judge me by my failure. This was the REAL fear at the heart of my nervousness and hesitation: fear of judgement by people whose opinions mattered, to me.
The Truth About Irrational Fear
In the example above, you can see that there was no immediate danger to my life. The fear crept in because of a faulty set of beliefs I had about myself. These beliefs are the real source of our fears. They are often programmed into us when we are kids, and are frequently based on incomplete or inaccurate information about ourselves or how the world around us operates. Once they are programmed into our brains, they will play mind games with us that can result in a lifetime of having our actions controlled by irrational fears.
When you’re stressed or attempting something outside your comfort zone, you’ve probably experienced this kind of self-critical inner dialogue. The devil on your shoulder paints the worst-case scenario in vivid detail in your mind, trying to convince you to back down from taking action. This inner dialogue triggers the exact same fight-or-flight response we use to respond to real danger. It literally cuts off the part of our brain responsible for rational decision making.
This is why we often make bad decisions when we’re under pressure or stressed out. When our brains switch into fight-or-flight mode, and survival becomes our number one priority, our decisions tend to be more self-serving and focused on keeping us safe. If we continue to recoil in the face of fear and take the easy road to comfort and safety, how are we ever going to grow and learn? How do you know where your limits are if you never even approach them?
What Is the Root of Fear?
There is often an inaccurate or false belief about oneself at the root of our irrational fears. Usually, it’s because you’re afraid you’ll be judged and that you might not be loved as a result. This, of course, is just a mind game you must conquer. This type of fear is an illusion, a trick your mind plays on you to keep you paralyzed and unable to act. It’s impossible, and irrelevant, to know what other people think of you. This is something outside of your control and therefore, should not concern you at all.
Once we figure out the root cause of our fear, we can consciously choose how to react. Sure, the fear response might still get triggered, but now you can recognize when this is happening and use your mind and physiology to interrupt your ingrained response pattern. You can pause long enough after a fear-inducing stimulus to make a reasoned response.
How To Interrupt Your Fear Response
When you notice your heart beating faster or your breath quickening, you can consciously intervene. Here’s a simple and effective technique you can try:
1 – Focus your attention on your breathing and taking slower and longer breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
2 – Shift your focus to your peripheral vision, instead of looking at what is directly in front of you. This takes the scary thing out of your sight.
3 – Keep your mind calm, relaxed and free from thoughts. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but if your mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to your breath.
This should have an almost immediate effect on your fear and stress levels. You’ll notice your heart rate starting to slow down because you are consciously controlling your breath and taking your attention away from the perceived threat in your environment. The process of slowing down your breathing also activates your parasympathetic nervous system and switches off your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight-or-flight response.
After engaging in this process for 5 to 10 minutes, you should feel noticeably calmer and more peaceful, the ideal state to tackle any problems or challenges that cross your path.