I’ve lived most of my life conforming, doing all the “right” things, to achieve the “good life” I’d heard about growing up. To get to this promised land, I invested most of my efforts into trying to avoid the scary “bad things” I’d learned that I didn’t want: pain, loneliness, and failure. With fear looming large, my decisions were all about what I didn’t want instead of what I did. Life became an obstacle course of avoiding rather than achieving, which led to a numb, depressing existence, culminating in a suicide attempt.
If medals were handed out for avoidance skills, I would’ve taken my place at the top of the podium. Unhappy and stunted, I stayed in a marriage for far too long because I was terrified of going out on my own. After summoning the guts to leave, I dived headfirst into an unhealthy relationship because I feared being alone and losing what I believed was my most valuable asset, my looks. Next, rather than face that break-up and more legal entanglements with the ex, I tried to kill myself.
Surprisingly, avoidance can be an unconscious motivating factor behind much of our lives. Instead of having a clear idea of who we want to be, and what we want, and making decisions accordingly, which may involve some risk and discomfort, all too often, we make fear-based decisions, limiting us and our happiness. These choices steer our actions and behavior in a direction allowing us to avoid that uncomfortable feeling, but also not providing any real opportunity for substantial growth or achievement of goals.
A 2005 study conducted by a psychologist, Ming Hsu, showed that even a small amount of ambiguity caused increased activity in the brain’s amygdalae, two deep brain structures which are part of the limbic system and involved in the processing and expression of emotions, especially in response to threat. As the level of ambiguity and amygdala activity escalates, the part of the brain involved in our response to rewards, the ventral striatum, decreases functioning.
Our brains don’t merely prefer certainty over ambiguity. They crave it and the feeling of being right, called “certainty bias.” When we “feel” right, our brains are happy.
In the book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark writes:
The more certainty and control we think we have about a potentially threatening situation, the less stress we will feel. Interestingly enough, perception is all that counts with this. You don’t actually need to have perfect certainty or total control over how things will pan out; you just need to believe that you have them.
Our brains’ innate desire for certainty, in an ever-increasing uncertain world, has caused anxiety to surpass depression, in the past decade, to become the most prevalent mental health issue in the United States. According to Clark, to calm our amygdala down and reduce stubbornness, fear, and anxiety, we have to transform our relationship with fear from adversarial to accepting. Clark writes: “So, the measure of our ability to deal well with fear isn’t whether we get afraid, but how we connect with that fear.”
Ways To Make Friends With Your Fear
Because the brain is actually designed to thwart our conscious efforts to override the fear response, changing our relationship to fear isn’t easy, but it can be done by becoming more mindful, getting comfortable with uncertainty, and even welcoming and leaning into fear. Clark offers the following proven methods to relate better to our fears, stress, and worried minds:
Breathe – Consciously take slow, deep breaths into your abdomen to inform the parasympathetic nervous system that things are OK.
Put your feelings into words – Labeling an emotion, by talking or writing, helps the brain process and diffuse it.
Train, practice, and prepare – Through repetition and experience, you can program yourself to perform and make better decisions under stress as the procedure becomes routine and automatic in the brain.
Redirect your focus – Instead of turning your attention inward, and growing preoccupied with worries, concentrate on the present moment and on the task at hand.
Mindfully disentangle from worries and thoughts – Learn to observe your thoughts and worries, distance yourself from them, and let them pass without getting hooked into them.
Expose yourself to your fears – To hit the mute button on fear, you have to allow yourself to feel afraid and expose yourself to it. Clark writes: “…[M]oving through a fear is the only way out of it.”
Learn to accept uncertainty and lack of control – By actually facing your fears of the future, accepting reality, and basking in your uncertainty, for instance, by repeating and exploring a distressing worry, without resisting the anxious emotional reaction, you and your amygdalae habituate to the idea and calm down. With exposure and acceptance, fear loses its power.
Reframe the situation – When anxious biases appear about a situation, we can learn to consciously change our perspective by looking for the good, speculating possible positive outcomes, and not buying into negative thoughts.
Joke around – Research shows that humor helps a person break out of a negative point of view and see things differently.
Build faith in yourself – Through celebrating small successes when exposing yourself to fear, changing to positive self-talk, and visualizing optimistic outcomes, you can expand your comfort zone and confidence. Research into worry shows that people handle worst-case scenarios far better than they expect.
Keep your eyes on a guiding principle – Dedication to a higher purpose, whether a spiritual belief, altruism, or personal goals, helps abate fear and keep us pointed in the right direction in the face of fear or hopelessness.
Open up to fear unconditionally – Instead of battling, avoiding, trying to control, or feeling bad about fear, learn to approach fear as a friendly companion, expecting it to show up and welcoming it when it does. If you stop thinking of it as a problem, it’s not a problem.
According to Clark:
Knowing what to do on an intellectual level is the easy part. …Walking that path is difficult, but we must walk it anyway. Because the path of fear is the path of life.
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