To overcome fear, one needs to believe they will be happy on the other side, and that getting to the other side of fear is possible. Knowing and believing are two very different attitudes. In this article, I use my own childhood fear as an example throughout. Keep in mind, we need fear to live, so be careful in what fear you try to overcome.
As a young child, I had many fears, as I’m sure most children experience. For me, my most significant event to overcome fear was the weather, specifically thunderstorms. I was convinced that every storm would spawn a tornado which would ultimately find and pulverize my house, with me in it! Now, please know that I did not grow up in tornado alley or in a tornado prone area. Yes, we experienced the random water spout and once a decade, or so a tornado would develop. The tornadoes were far enough from my house not to see the funnel of destruction but close enough that the local newspaper printed articles about the twister.
I have no idea of the origin of my fear, but I knew exactly how to overcome fear in this situation. To overcome fear is not easy, primarily when our fear is rooted in reality. In my childhood situation, the fact was that tornadoes did happen in my area, do spawn from thunderstorms, and are capable of demolishing houses. Therefore, to that extent of reality, my fear was justified.
Yet there’s another perspective, or reality, to be examined if we want to overcome fear. In my case, reality also demonstrated that a tornado never formed in my neighborhood, at the time I had never seen a tornado, and in my 18 years growing up in my childhood home, it was never demolished by a tornado (actually that home still stands to this day). So yes, there was a reason for my fear, but also yes, my childhood fear was unfounded.
Fear is powerful, convincing us to either flee or fight against a known or unknown danger waiting to harm us. The threat, for our first ancestors, was primarily focused on physical survival issues, life, and death situations. Today our fears tend to be focused on emotional survival issues. Emotional survival is as essential to our overall survival as is physical survival. Fear is instinctual as a means to protect us in situations where protection is needed so that we survive and reach the other side of that which was threatening.
Since fear serves to protect us from both physical and emotional harm, guiding us along a path of survival, why then even talk about how to overcome fear? Shouldn’t we embrace fear as our protector? Fear is actually not our problem, as such, I should change the title of this article. The problem we have is how we cope with our fear. The initial reaction to either flee or fight is helpful, but becoming stuck in either mode is detrimental to moving forward. It’s so much easier to flee or fight when the situation is physical. Yet when the threat is emotional, fleeing or fighting is more difficult to notice, and so we become stuck.
As a child, my response to thunderstorms was to hide under my bed or to run into the basement. The latter is the preferred location if there actually were a tornado present, yet for me, it was an escape, a fleeing, to where I felt safe. My becoming stuck was not fleeing to the basement, but doing so, when there was no need to do so. I would leave friends, activities, family, etc. to flee to the imagined safety of the basement. Fleeing when it leads to safety is healthy and wise; fleeing solely out of fear is unhealthy and being stuck.
What have I learned from my childhood into adulthood on how to overcome fear?
- Reflect: When you feel afraid, take action to protect yourself. After you’ve acted, reflect on yourself and the situation to determine if your response to your fear is healthy or not, using the example I gave above.
- Act: Take action, not to overcome fear, but to overcome your unhealthy response to fear. As I grew older, and while hiding in the basement, I happened upon a very old book set somewhat hidden under my Dad’s tool bench. As I uncovered the books, I noticed that one of the books was about the weather, explaining the forces and science behind how the weather works and safety tips. My action was in learning about that which I feared, causing me to have a respectful fear of Mother Nature. I now know when seeking shelter and being afraid is necessary and when it’s not. As an adult, I now spend free time chasing storms. I enjoy sitting on my deck to watch the beauty of the lightning show, and I’ve even been in storms which spawned tornadoes that I was able to see. Some of these experiences produced no fear in me while others produced much fear, and healthily, I respected the power of nature and took shelter.
- Fight: Fight within yourself to believe that you can overcome your fear. When I first started to learn about the weather I “knew” I could handle my fear, yet it took years of maturing and study to “believe” that I could overcome fear and respond healthily. Start with “knowing” but continue to fight and work until you get to “believing” in yourself.
- Flee: It’s important not to think of fleeing with a negative connotation. Fleeing from a harmful situation is wise for survival and for providing time to create a plan of action. In modern life, physically fleeing, or leaving a person or condition may be the healthiest action to take for your own emotional well-being. Similarily, emotional fleeing from a situation, controlled and not permanent, can have the same healthy effect as does physical fleeing. Keep in mind that healthy or unhealthy flight is dependant upon your motivation and the reality of the threat. An emotionally abusive relationship might require a person to flee physically. Yet a person who simply doesn’t like a situation, their fleeing may be an unhealthy escape. Sometimes circumstances may be able to be fixed if you stay and fight.
Yes, we need fear to live and survive, but how we respond to our fear is what makes the difference in our emotional health. If you want to live a happy and peaceful life, practice believing in yourself that you can overcome fear by the way you cope with your fear.