As a therapist, my job is to listen to people and, lucky for me, I get paid to do that. I find it an honor that people would pour out their lives to me, hoping for answers, peace or solace. I am trained to listen for key words and clues that give me insight to the inner workings of a person’s thoughts and emotions. Through those significant words, I help identify the root of where most problems originate, and then I work together with my patient to find suitable solutions. My goal as a therapist is to help people understand themselves so that they can lead reasonably happy lives, learning to cope with the curve balls that are sometimes thrown at them.
One of those key words that is most common to my ear is the word “fear.” For such a small four-letter term, it is one of the most powerful expressions in the world.
Merriam-Webster defines fear as “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” As you can imagine, this word has been used in abundance within the four walls of my office in the last year. Fear is something that we feel, an emotion like sadness or anger. It is a primitive reaction, developed to protect us from danger. Fear is processed in a small structure of our brains called the amygdala. When faced with a stimulus that causes us to be afraid (in my case it would be a snake), the amygdala sends a signal to the sympathetic nervous system triggering a release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and the stress hormone cortisol. In return, our heart begins to race, our pupils dilate, and our breathing speeds up. We then make a decision to fight whatever it is that scares us, run from it, or simply freeze and do nothing.
As I mentioned earlier, fear can be a good thing that protects us from something harmful, but too much of it can be highly detrimental. Fear, when uncontrolled, becomes anxiety — and anxiety leads to more serious and long-lasting problems. We have heard the word anxiety referred to as stress, bad nerves, scared, worry and fretting. Anyone with an anxiety disorder knows that it is no fun walking around in this world feeling afraid all of the time. That is why it is important to understand fear and anxiety and learn how to think differently about those things that we are often too much afraid of.
We have been conditioned to be more afraid than normal over the past year with COVID and political shenanigans. Some of those fears are rational, but what about the ones that are not? How do we manage and discern what to be afraid of and what to not worry about?Sometimes we are even afraid of ourselves.
Pre-pandemic, I conducted workshops and spoke publicly to groups about brain health while teaching coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety. I used an illustration called “fear in a hat” in which I would ask each participant to write their worst fear on a piece of paper and place it in the hat that was passed around the group. I would then choose one person to read one of the papers to aloud to the group. I would then process with the group what it must feel like to deal with that fear, teaching compassion and understanding for others. Every time I used this exercise, overwhelmingly, the most common fear entered into the hat was the fear of failure.
Is failure something that is dangerous and worthy to be afraid of? Can failure bite you or take your life? Why are we so afraid of it? When we think of taking a risk and doing something we have never done before, the not knowing what will happen is what we are really afraid of. Maybe it is that we are worried about what other people will think, or that they will disapprove of us in some way. Or, perhaps, it is that we simply think that we aren’t good enough. But who are we trying to please, and why is that fear of not pleasing them so great that it paralyzes us into doing nothing?
Think of this from the viewpoint of those who are dating. You get asked out on a date by someone who you have had your eye on for a while. He finally asks to take you out and you suddenly feel the anxiety and butterflies creeping in. The thoughts run through your head, “What if he thinks I am weird?... What if he doesn’t like what I am wearing? ... What if I am not good enough? What if, what if, what if...?” The fear of failure grips you to the point that your doubt in yourself keeps you from doing the very thing that you had hoped for. The same applies for changing jobs or starting your own company. “What if I don’t sell enough product to pay the bills or make payroll? ... What if I can’t manage the business correctly?” We can “what if” ourselves to death.
But what if you do say yes to the guy who you like, and what if he falls in love with your weirdness? What if your business idea takes off and you make a ton of money and can retire on a yacht in the Bahamas? If you let fear take hold and never take a risk, then you will never know what the possibilities are. Be confident in yourself, do not be afraid and stop letting fear take control of your life.
Dr. Rhonda Smith is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at South Central Regional Medical Center. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.