The Purpose of Fear, and How to Overcome It

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All human emotions have a purpose, even uncomfortable or negative emotions. Much like physical pain, fear alerts us to the reality that something is wrong. There is a lot of energy spent on avoiding and suppressing negative emotions. Feelings such as anger and fear are labeled as “bad,” and therefore you feel bad or out of control or defective if you experience these emotions. If you experience fear, there is a societal underpinning that you are cowardly, a chicken, or not brave.

The truth is everyone experiences fear. Feelings of fear are stimulated by dangerous situations. If you encounter a potentially harmful situation, the brain automatically sends signals to your body to fight, flight, or freeze, whatever it thinks will provide the best chance of survival. This reaction is independent of cognitive processing. It’s primal, instinctual, and is not a referendum on your overall worth as a person. For instance, if you are sexually assaulted and you don’t fight or run away, it doesn’t mean you wanted it to happen. It means your brain, without your knowledge, sent a signal to your body urging you to “freeze” as a survival mechanism.

If you are fearful of situations that, to others, you shouldn’t be afraid of, it is because at some point, your brain decided a particular situation was dangerous and is sending signals to your body to avoid or evade those circumstances. To the vast majority of people, being out in public does not provoke a sense of fear, but for someone suffering from agoraphobia, that situation is truly frightening. Not everyone has a fear of heights, or flying, or public speaking, but if you do have those fears, facing them can feel as potentially lethal as a car wreck or being mugged at gunpoint.

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This doesn’t mean you should give in to your fears. With fear, the only way out is through. Many mental health conditions are the manifestation of fear. Anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, phobias, posttraumatic stress, depression, paranoia, and addictions are all deeply rooted in fear. In most cases, avoidance makes fear stronger, while facing fears helps to lessen their negative impact on your life. When considering confronting a frightening situation that you would normally avoid, ask yourself the following:

  • What am I afraid of?
  • Is this fear realistic?
  • What is the worst that can happen?
  • What can I do to protect myself from that outcome?
  • Is the worst-case scenario really so disastrous?
  • Where in my body do I feel fear?
  • How do I feel when I take a few deep breaths?

Maybe you’re thinking, “If fear has a purpose, why do I have to overcome it?” The answer is inside you. If fear is holding you back from living the life you want, then confronting fear is the answer. If your anxiety issues, addiction, phobia, or reaction to trauma is rooted in fear and stops you from participating in activities you normally would if you weren’t feeling afraid, then seeking help to deal with these fears will improve not only your mental well-being, but your life in general.

Everyone experiences fear. Being fearless isn’t brave; facing your fears and seeking assistance is. Even if fear isn’t causing a mental health issue, it might be having an impact on your life. Do you dislike your current job but are afraid to quit and go back to school to train for the job you really want? Do you have feelings for someone but are afraid of telling them because they might reject you? Do you want to go on a diet, work out, and lose weight but are afraid of ridicule or failure? You might not have clinical depression or anxiety just because you are experiencing this kind of fear, but fear is still impacting your life in a negative way. Facing those fears may lead to failure…but then again, they may not.

If you want to take action against your fears, Susan Jeffers wrote an excellent book called “Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway.” The Charleston Counseling Center also has therapists trained in treatment modalities that can help anyone experiencing fear-based mental health issues. If you think this applies to you or a loved one, or if you have anxiety but can’t quite pinpoint the cause, please give us a call.

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