People often confuse fear with danger. Danger is very real, but fear is an emotional response to something that may or may not be real. Let’s take a look at their unique definitions.
Danger: The possibility of suffering harm or injury. A person or thing that is likely to cause harm or injury.
Fear: A strong, uncontrollable, unpleasant emotion caused by actual or perceived danger or threat.
Notice that danger is an action – something that presents a very serious potential outcome of harm. This could be an action you take or another person takes against you, or just simply being in a situation that is dangerous.
Fear is not an action. It’s an emotion. It is a feeling about something that has yet to happen. Its intensity is so powerful that it can impair and skew our judgment when determining what is truly a threat. So how do we learn to conquer our fears rather than let them conquer us?
The first step is to explore what you are really afraid of. Then go through the worst case scenario and think about what you have control over and create an action plan. Your plan should only entail actions that you have complete control over.
Chris Hadfield did a great TED Talks in Vancouver about going temporarily blind while in space. You can check it out here. Astronauts spend hours and hours practicing not only what should go right in space, but what can go wrong. In practicing different scenarios, you learn how to effectively deal with situations that come that can be terrifying.
When I was really little, my mother was afraid that I would clandestinely wander outside and fall into our pool. I was a clever kid, even at that age with a knack for getting into places that I shouldn’t have been in. Instead of stressing about what I would do, she focused on what she could control and signed me up for swimming lessons. I spent that whole summer learning how to swim. It made her feel better and it equipped me with the skills I would need if I had found myself deep water.
Another way to conquer fear is to do what you are afraid of over and over again. As long as it’s objectively safe and can be done in increments. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know. As adults we can be so resistant to things we fear. But as kids, we are fearless. Isn’t it funny how we lose that fearlessness as adults? By doing what we fear over and over again, we are flooding (which is the actual psychological term in behavioral therapy) ourselves with the experience and seeing first hand that we are okay when exposed to what we fear. For example, if you are afraid of heights, go up to the top floor of a high building. You can gradually increase the height, before say, going skydiving.
The other thing is to remember that you are not alone when it comes to fear. We have all been afraid of things. What if my partner leaves me? What if I get fired? What if my loved one’s cancer comes back? What if my kid doesn’t get his act together and find a job? These are all very real worries and fears that all of us have had or are having. But we can’t let them run our lives because we will be completely ineffective should what we fear actually happen. Which is unlikely, by the way – 99% of what we worry about never happens.