Fear is the mind killer…or is it? Fear is often viewed as something to be avoided, but what are some psychological benefits of fear? In my practice as a therapist, inevitably clients will bring up personal fears and anxieties in our sessions. “What if I’m not good enough/smart enough/talented enough?” “Am I going to fail?” “What if I succeed?” “Were my parents right about me?” “What if he’s cheating on me?” “What if I never get better?” You get the idea. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the role of fear in my own life as well as my clients’ lives. I’ve come to the conclusion that fear is actually helpful in a number of ways.
Fear is a roadmap leading us back to ourselves.
Fear helps highlight what we value and want (or don’t want) for our lives. You’re considering a new career but are afraid of leaving the familiar and all the unknowns that come with a major life change? Congratulations, you just discovered something so important to you that you’re willing to consider turning your world upside down in order to get it. Fear is to be expected. In fact, I’d argue that the more fear you feel, the more that thing that keeps nagging at your thoughts means to you.
Fear can also lead to self-discovery in other ways. Let’s say you struggle with social anxiety and are uncomfortable with large gatherings full of people you barely know. When you think of what underlies that fear, it’s likely something like a fear of not being accepted or liked by others. Where did that come from? Maybe you have a few painful memories of your peers laughing at you on the playground as a child. Perhaps you never felt accepted by your parents growing up. Maybe it’s just the fact that humans are social creatures, and you’re hardwired to seek social approval as a survival skill. Or, perhaps you don’t accept or like yourself, so you assume others won’t either. In any case, asking these sorts of questions can lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves and why we behave the way we do.
Fears created by the world we live in.
But what about more practical, less abstract fears? Societally, many people are facing very real fears such as the pandemic, climate change and natural disasters, being the target of prejudice, financial concerns, lack of access to healthcare, and the list goes on. In these cases, fear can be our greatest survival tactic. It’s our nervous system’s way of telling us when there’s a threat to our safety. We can use this information to take steps to increase our sense of internal safety, despite external circumstances being out of our individual control. That could look like wearing a mask and increasing our use of hand sanitizer, buying an air filter for fire season, etc.
Irrational fears… or are they?
Of course, often times we experience fears that seem “irrational” on the surface that are not a “real” threat to our safety. Remember being afraid of the monster under your bed as a kid? Or maybe as an adult, you’re afraid that despite any evidence to the contrary, you’ll suddenly be fired from your job, evicted from your home, your partner will leave you without warning, and you’ll die penniless and alone? Our minds can come up with some elaborate worst-case scenarios, and it can be a monumental challenge not to believe these thoughts.
I think in these moments it’s important not to take these fears as literal truth, but to examine what’s underneath them in a broader or more symbolic sense. If your child is afraid of monsters under the bed, perhaps they’re really afraid of the unknown…something unseen in the dark. If you’re afraid of the things you’ve worked hard for being suddenly taken away from you, perhaps underlying that is a fear that you’re not worthy of having those things in the first place. Only you can answer these types of questions for yourself. Sitting with our fears and considering what’s underneath them on a deeper level often shows us that even “irrational” fears have a perfectly rational reason for surfacing. No, you’re not “crazy”. You just want to feel worthy of the things that matter to you like the rest of us.
Don’t hide from the monster under your bed, befriend it.
Yes, fear is unpleasant to feel. But if you don’t let yourself feel it, it will only get stronger and lead to things like chronic anxiety and stress. It can keep us stuck and lead to inaction. The point isn’t to make fear disappear, because fear is an inevitable part of life as a human. The point is to acknowledge it, get to know and understand it, and access the courage available to all of us in order to keep going despite fear. You can harness your fear and ride it into battle with you. I promise it will help you feel more alive.
Therapy can be a safe place to process fear and other difficult emotional experiences. To schedule a therapy session with me or one of our other mental health practitioners at Emerge, please call (360) 787-3615.