At Design.org, we talk a lot about the reality of fear. We believe in fear. We believe in acknowledging and rejecting your fear in order to demonstrate courage. And we believe that by learning to control your thoughts, you’ll be better equipped to control and conquer your fears.
Today, I want to zero in on this last thought: the fact that your thoughts and your fears are connected, and how you can use that to your advantage. And what it really boils down to is this: as real as fear is, fear only exists in the mind.
What is fear?
Google “What is fear?” and you’ll receive this definition: “An unpleasant feeling triggered by the perception of danger, real or imagined.”
Fear is not a tangible thing. It’s not something you can trim like you’d trim your hair. You can’t pack it up in a box and drop it into the ocean, or shove to the back of a cabinet so that it’s out of sight and out of mind.
What’s more, fear is not objective. It’s perceived—subjective. Fear doesn’t reflect truth, because the threat you perceive can be imagined or blown out of proportion.
According to the above definition, fear is a feeling that is triggered by perception. Both of these things exist only in your mind.
How fear happens
If fear only exists in the mind, and you have control over your thoughts, then why do we still feel fear? None of us would consciously choose to feel fear, right? So how exactly does it happen?
We’re born with only two fears: the fear of falling, and the fear of loud sounds. Even young infants seem to have an instinctual fear of both of these things.
The rest of our fears are a product of our childhood and our past: the environment we grow up in, the relationships we have with others, the negative experiences we have (with dogs or heights or the dark), and so on. We can also learn from the negative experiences of others. (Your parents, for example, might pass on their fear of flying as they communicate, either directly or indirectly, that planes are dangerous.)
Fear triggers an automatic “fight or flight” response. When we perceive danger, our bodies prepare, physically and mentally, to either fight back or run away, whichever we think will offer better protection.
When fear becomes learned
Initially, these “learned” fears may take some mental energy to connect the dots. You see your mom’s fear of spiders, and your brain goes to work making sense of that fear. You think about what spiders could do to you and why you don’t like them. Your fight or flight response gets triggered, and you feel fear.
Over time, your brain starts to create shortcuts to the fear. Eventually, the sight of a spider, or even hearing mention of a spider, could be enough to trigger your fear response. Your brain has thought the fearful thoughts enough times that it doesn’t have to actively think them.
You’ve learned this fear. The brain has practiced thinking this way, possibly for your entire life.
Breaking the fear cycle
This basically describes a harmful cycle that perpetuates or even exacerbates the fear: your feelings of fear lead to thoughts of fear, which lead to more feelings of fear, and the cycle restarts, possibly with stronger feelings the next time around.
Where can this cycle be broken? Not in the automatic physiological response you have to the fear’s stimulus; that’s built into your wiring and will take unlearning and relearning in order to overcome. The place where you have the most control is in your thoughts.
Putting this into practice would look like:
- Recognizing the fear response so you can start watching for fearful thoughts
- Articulating the fearful thoughts (speak them out loud, write them down, etc.)
- Replacing the fearful thoughts with thoughts that serve you.
The more you practice this process, the more your brain learns to think this way, instead of shortcutting to the intense feelings of fear. You’re able to remain calm, even when facing something that scares you.
So why is this good news? Why does it matter that fear only exists in the mind?
Because it means that fear is not the problem—your perception is the problem. When you perceive something to be scary, you will be scared. If you can convince yourself that it’s safe, you will feel safe. If you’re aware of this, you’re ready and able to take control of your fear, so that it doesn’t get the best of you.
The fear cycle can be interrupted, as long as you’re able to design thoughts that help you address the fear the way you want to address it.
You can reject fear and move past it, if you can control your thoughts.
This can work in any situation, with any fear. Breaking that fear cycle is a matter of choosing which thoughts to entertain, and which to let go of.
You have the power. You have the control. And you’ve had it all along. You just need to reclaim it and remember that fear only exists in the mind.
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