As a mental health professional, one of the common barriers to change that I have seen – in both my professional life and my own life experiences – is fear. Fear of the unknown and change, fear of failing, fear of social situations, fear of people’s judgement, and even fear of, well, fear.
So, let’s turn on a light and shine it on fear.
I must be honest, after typing the word fear over nine times so far, the word seems surreal, leaving me wondering a few things:
- Are you having a similar experience?
- Have I discovered something? Say it enough times and the meaning attached loses power?
- What else can we do to overcome the hold of the fear in our lives?
- How can we reclaim hope, control and be empowered towards change?
Before exploring these questions, I think it is important to come back to basics.
Fear, like all strong emotions, serves a purpose. Without getting too scientific, this strong emotion helps to keep us safe from harm, alerting us to external threats and charging us with the energy to fight or flee to find a sense of safety. The use of fear is ancient, going back to times when we lived in caves, hunting and gathering for our survival and being hunted ourselves by predators more dangerous than us.
But somewhere along human evolution, fear has entrenched itself in our lives. We aren’t charged to overcome an external predator; we are charged to escape something now within us. Fighting or fleeing seems to make the fear bigger, more stuck and blocks our full potential. Along the way, hope seems to get smaller and coping patterns are learned (e.g. using alcohol, drugs, relationships, work, or anything that avoids feeling the fear). They may help us to survive life’s challenges, even for the short-term, but once the effects wear off, they too end up feeding the fear and our barriers. Over the longer term, this can evolve into other symptoms characterised with mental health illnesses and challenges, like anxiety (Levine, 2010).
Now, I am not suggesting everyone who experiences the fear has an anxiety diagnosis. Or that the fear isn’t sometimes linked to significant external dangers like violence, accidents or childhood trauma. What I am suggesting is that the fear being stuck for people without a resolution to a sense of safety, is more common than we may think.
Let’s take a quick look at how common this experience is. According to the 2014-15 National Health Survey published by the ABS, 2.6 million Australians reported being diagnosed with or experienced symptoms of anxiety. Two key anxiety symptoms are intense worry and fear of … [insert any of the above-mentioned focusses of the fear such as social situations, change and judgement] (SANE Australia, 2018).
This suggests that the experience of anxiety and fear is certainly a common one. This is confronting but also important to normalise the experience and turn down the minds ‘tape recorder’ of negative messages such as: “What is wrong with me?” and “Why am I the only one that is not coping?”. Knowing you are not alone helps take back some control from the fear. This combined with asking for or being open to accepting help (either from family, friends or a health professional) are significant steps towards finding a way to ‘unstick’ the fear from your life.
In my experience, a couple of things help reclaim control from the fear:
- Exploring the relationship with ourselves through self-awareness of triggers (what caused and now feeds the fear). To increase safety and the ‘right conditions’ (see more about this below), this is best done with the support of a health professional (such as a counsellor, psychologist or mental health professional).
- Practicing self-care to build safety and resiliency (bouncing back from life’s challenges). Please see the article in Freo Pages by FreoMind mental health professional, Samantha Dhu, for more information.
Another chance to challenge fear is finding our GRIT.
I first heard of GRIT in a TEDtalk by Angela Lee Duckworth in 2016, ‘GRIT: The power of passion and perseverance’. I loved the idea of GRIT as a real tool helping people to learn new ways that empower them towards change. GRIT suggests that change success is just the tip of the iceberg: what you see on the surface.
It is underneath this where the real power of change is: persevering and continuing even when it is hard and in the face of fear. There’s that word again (29 times and counting!).
Here are some GRIT ingredients and tips for how to expose fear’s ‘kryptonite’.
The ‘Right Conditions’. Creating this increases hope that things can be different. It can embody people like armour made of individual strengths, helping to challenge the fear. The ‘Right Conditions’ are connecting with our strengths (things you’re good at or admire in other people e.g.- patient, kind and organised) and resources (e.g.- people, pets, past experiences and being in nature). Like a spider web, many strong parts make a stronger whole. These parts make up our ‘right conditions’; that is, elements we can ‘hook’ onto instead of fear and negative thoughts. Increasing hope, our self-esteem and ability to keep on trying even when it gets hard.
Goal/Change Clarity. Realistic goal setting is vital. Ask yourself, “Is this a realistic goal now or do I need to break this down into smaller goals to achieve a bigger one?. Like a puzzle that is made up of pieces e.g.- studying to be able to get the ideal job versus applying for the ideal job without having the qualifications required.
Dedication, Hard work and Discipline. These three ingredients go together and are channeled by asking, “What motivates me to achieve this goal?”. It is human nature to be more successful at making changes in our lives when we care about the outcome: for example, going to work every day because you know that will bring in money needed to save for a dream holiday.
Disappointment and Failure. Sometimes despite all your dedication, hard work and discipline the outcome isn’t what you expected. Getting through this is fuelled by taking time to ‘feel the feelings’ (crying, journaling, talking it out …) and reframing this as not a failure, but more an opportunity to look at:
- What has been learned?
- What are the barriers?
- What strengths or strategies can help overcome these?
- What can be done differently next time?
These are learned skills that require practice to avoid feeding old patterns of fear.
Sacrifice. GRIT is a process and sometimes you may need to miss out on other experiences along the way. This is hard. Stay connected to your ‘right conditions’, strengths and nurture yourself daily with self-care; for example, connecting with friends, exercise, or finding joy in a cup of tea and a snuggle rug.
Patience and Persistence. Change takes patience and persistence. It is not a straight path that goes from A-Z. It can take us from A to G, back to C, then L, before getting to Z. Like with the other GRIT ingredients, this is more accessible with your ‘right conditions’ and staying connected to your motivation for change (what is in it for you).
GRIT sits underneath the idea of success, increases hope and creates steps towards achieving our goals/change. It embodies us like armour made up of individual strengths.
Once the light shines on GRIT and we use these ingredients, we are empowered with hope. This is fear’s ‘kryptonite’ (34 times and the word ‘fear’ doesn’t scare me now at all).
 It is important to note that there are certain members of the population that are excluded from participating in national surveys such as people under 16 years old, those who chose not to complete the survey, people in jail or hospitalised and, most importantly, homeless people.