“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” - Jerry Seinfeld
Though just a joke by a comedian, it’s true: When it comes to fears and phobias, much of the time they don’t make sense and aren’t rooted in rational thinking.
Someone once told me 95 percent of the time the things you worry about—the things you most fear—never come true.
When I got to thinking about it, I realized how true that statement was. Never is this more true than when we consider accidents and injuries. While you might be super duper scared of climbing the rope at the gym because you’re scared of heights, chances are you have never been injured during a rope climb. Meanwhile, you weren’t scared to run around the block, and yet you proceeded to sprain your ankle on the curb.
One a similar note, have you ever convinced yourself of something you made up in your head, such as, ’So-and-so didn’t text me back. He must have gotten into a car accident,’ you think.
At first, it’s just a fleeting thought, but as more time goes by with an unanswered text message, you soon start to believe your own fantasy. It starts to feel real, and so you believe it’s real. Pretty soon, you’re so consumed with this fear and you don’t relax until you hear back from the person. Three hours later, you receive a text message from the person telling you his phone has been dead all afternoon. You breathe a sigh of relief and kick yourself for letting a made-up fear consume your afternoon.
Most of your fears, and thoughts in general, for that matter—be it a fear of needles, of box jumps or of airplanes—are like the latter: made-up and irrational. Your brain knows a nurse can be trusted with administering a needle into your arm, that you’re physically capable of jumping onto a 20-inch box and that flying is safe (you’re more likely to injure yourself getting out of bed), but we continue to let our fears hold us back.
The key comes down to recognizing which fears are real and which ones are irrational and should be eradicated.
The Good Fear:
Fear is a normal, natural and even a necessary part of being human. It’s basically a survival mechanism that kicks into gear when you sense danger. In short, fear and risk assessment are vital for physical and emotional development. When you feel fear, there’s a physiological response. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) are released into your bloodstream, which triggers a fight-or-flight response that cause us to react to whatever situation is in front of us.
HOWEVER, despite this mechanism existing to help us survive, when we develop irrational worries, phobias and fear, this protection mechanism backfires and ends up hurting us. Or at the very least holding us back from all life has to offer. Like doing box jumps and rope climbs.
So how do you get over the irrational fears?
It helps to understand a bit about the “science” behind fear. Thus, here are 6 things you maybe didn’t know about fear that can help you understand it and move forward:
The source of your fear isn’t as simple as you thought
Often times, people attribute a fear to a specific event, like that time they smoked their knee on a box jump, so now they’re scared to ever jump on a box again. Then they blame that box jump accident for the rest of their lives and boycott box jump days.
The experts, however, say fear is developed through a complex mix of both environmental factors and genetics. While the box jump incident may have played a role, it’s worth digging deeper than that. While this might not be all that comforting, because if you blame genetics for your fears it’s hard to imagine eradicating them, this article talks about genetics, environmental factors and common fears: (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080407160738.htm)
Fears transcend boundaries…
Some fears are so innate, they’re universal across various cultures. For example, during your early stages of development, a fear of strangers, as well as a fear of separation (from your parents) is very common. So too is a fear of certain animals and insects, as well as fear of the dark and a fear of thunderstorms.
So don’t beat yourself up if you have what you think is a strange fear all to your own, like Anatidaephobia! Someone who is Anatidaephobic lives with a persistent fear that a duck is watching them. Sounds ridiculous, but considering the phobia has its own name, it has to be more common than you might expect?
Be thankful that you CAN feel fear!
A condition exists called Urbach-Wiethe disease. Those with this condition don’t experience fear. These people remain calm even during an event like a plane crash. Neuroscientists aren’t sure why, but it’s suspected that certain parts of their brain simply don’t become engaged, so they lack that fight-or-flight response.
Check out this story about a woman with the disease: https://www.wired.com/2010/12/fear-brain-amygdala/
Something tells me most of you would rather have the ability to feel fear than not at all?
Fear Distorts Reality
As I mentioned, fear is often a figment of your imagination. For example, someone who is claustrophobic and gets scared in small spaces, actually perceives the space they’re in as much smaller than it actually is. The same is true of spiders: Those who fear them see spiders as much bigger than they really are.
Becoming aware of this in the moment—that your imagination is taking over—can go a long way in grounding a person and helping them realize the reality of the situation is much different than their fear is telling them. A simple way to try to overcome this is to just stop, and take some slow deep breaths.
Fear Extinction Therapy
“Fear extinction” as they call it is the process of decreasing fear by creating new memory associations.
A 2010 study suggests cortisol can enhance this process of making fears extinct. The study administered cortisol to some participants (others received a placebo) before undergoing therapy to eradicate their fear of heights. Those who received the cortisol had a greater reduction in their fear than those who didn’t, and they also experienced less anxiety during the treatment. Interesting stuff, considering cortisol is generally associated with increasing stress and anxiety.
Tackling your fear head-on can also help you overcome it
For those who have legitimate phobias, actually confronting their fears in a safe and controlled environment usually helps them start to overcome their fear. For example, if you’re afraid of needles, but are keen to be a proud patron and donate blood to show strength in your community, you grow accustomed to confronting your fear until it becomes just another day at the office. The same is true of public speaking: There’s a reason people enrol in programs like Toast Masters: So they learn not to freak out when they have to give a presentation at work. Believe it or not, I used to be TERRIFIED of speaking in front of people, of having all eyes on me. I still remember the first ever group class that I coached, and it was nerve racking. But then I overcame that irrational fear of what people may be thinking of and now I pleasantly enjoy speaking in front of people and leading a group.
If you can relate to this, and if you have gym-related fears, take the plunge! Talk to your coach and we’ll help create an environment where you feel more comfortable tackling that fear once and for all.