By Jeremy Godwin.
This is Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing, by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin, that is about much more than just talk – every episode includes practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week we’re talking about fear – what it is, why it happens and how to work through your fears in order to improve your mental health and wellbeing. Listen now in the Spotify player below or read the transcript beneath the player. So, let’s talk!
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Fear. It’s one of the most basic survival instincts we have – it’s what helped our ancestors to know when it was time to run so they wouldn’t be eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger or one of the other thousands of giant things that were trying to have them for dinner. As our lifestyles have evolved over the centuries and millennia, we’ve moved beyond the need to be constantly ‘on alert’ in order to survive, however for a lot of us that instinct – the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response – can be over-active, or it can be hard to push through it so that we can do things that challenge us. Today we’re going to discuss how to get past fear so you can live your life to the fullest.
What is fear? Broadly speaking, fear is an emotion that serves to protect us, however it can also stand in our way because we might be too afraid of taking a risk for fear of failure or other consequences, and when that happens it can hold us back from trying new things, which in turns means it can hold us back from growing. The scientist Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” With that in mind, let’s take a few moments to understand what’s going on in our bodies when fear takes over and how it links to mental health.
When we talk about the biological process of fear, it’s a reaction to a threat, whether real or perceived, and it sets off a whole bunch of processes in our bodies to prepare us in case we need to react to that threat. I mentioned the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response before which is fairly self-explanatory, but basically it’s the instinctive response that takes over when we’re actually in danger that causes us to either fight, run away (i.e. Take ‘flight’), or freeze on the spot, and it’s driven by biological responses like our system being flooded with adrenaline.
These processes enhance functions that can help us to survive, like sharpening our eyesight and increasing blood flow to our muscles, and they also slow down bodily functions that aren’t critical in the moment, such as our digestive system. So, if you’re experiencing fear for a prolonged period of time it actually means your body is staying on high alert, and that can have a whole range of negative consequences for your physical and mental health, which I’ll cover in a minute.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what we’re not talking about this week. When I talk about fear, I’m not talking about specific fears or phobias like claustrophobia (a fear of confined spaces) or coulrophobia (a fear of clowns), because phobias are a much more complex topic that requires deeper conversation. I’m talking about fear as an emotion that’s linked closely to anxiety; in other words, the kind of fear that keeps you feeling anxious and afraid of stepping out of your safety zone. It can happen to various degrees to many of us, and for people with anxiety disorders fear can get out of control if we let it, which can result in downward spiral of fear holding us back from doing things that would potentially get us out of the spiral we’re in – it’s exhausting, but it can be dealt with over time.
Some examples of fear might be: stopping yourself from pursuing a goal or dream for fear of failure or what other people might think of you; it might be stopping yourself from having honest conversations with people in your life for fear of confrontation; it might be over-thinking and worrying about the worst possible things that might happen; it might be being scared of something happening that is out of your control. There are lots of different ways that fear can manifest, but what they all have in common is that fear will keep you small if you let it, because fear wants to keep you safe from harm… which is great when you’re being chased by a wooly mammoth, but not so great in the 21st century when you’re trying to pursue a dream or get on with living.
Fear and mental health
Fear is directly related to mental health and wellbeing because often our fears and insecurities can make us feel anxious or depressed, and when we give into our fears it can create a downward spiral for our overall health. If you’re experiencing the physical effects of fear – being constantly on edge and ready to fight, take flight or freeze – then over time that can have a negative effect on both your physical and mental health. Aside from the obvious – anxiety, depression, etc. – prolonged fear weakens your immune system, causes gastrointestinal issues like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and can cause damage to your heart and cardiovascular system. It can cause fatigue, memory issues, impulsive and self-destructive behaviour… you know, all the fun stuff. If that’s happening, you need to go and see your doctor – no excuses. I’m going to spend the rest of the episode focused on the fear of taking risks, but bear in mind that thought.
Fear is a good protection mechanism – it’s what tells us to get out of the way when a car is coming straight at us, for example – but it can also serve to over-protect us. Even if you’re not dealing with the more severe type of fear that can be associated with serious anxiety, PTSD or other mental health issues, fear is still something that can be constantly in the back of your mind, trying to keep you from doing anything that might be out of your comfort zone – and if you let type of fear win, then over time you do yourself a lot of damage because if you don’t take risks in life then you don’t grow. There is healthy and constructive fear, and there is unhealthy and destructive fear, and the challenge is to know the difference, and to be able to identify which is which so you can challenge unhealthy fears in order to grow.
Why should you work through your fears? That’s a great question, and the answer is probably going to be unique to each of us because we have our own reasons for wanting to do things that might stretch us or challenge us. But the thing about working through your fears and taking risks is that, by doing so, you get to achieve something that you want to achieve, and you get to shape your life to be the way that you want it to be – regardless of whether that’s in some small way, or some major way.
Let me give you an example. I never learned how to drive until I was 32. I started taking lessons when I was 18 and then I was a front-seat passenger in a car accident when my friend was driving, and even though we were thankfully unharmed it really put a dent in my confidence when I went to get back behind the wheel, so much so that I stopped lessons for a while. Then I moved to the inner city of Sydney (and if you’re familiar with the traffic in that city you’ll know that it’s easier just to get the bus), so I used that as an excuse to avoid getting my licence, and continued to do so when we moved to Melbourne when I was 25. But eventually it became very clear to me that I couldn’t avoid my fear for the rest of my life, and funnily enough at the time I was starting to think about doing something I was managing someone who had been through similar trauma but had found a great driving instructor who specialised in that sort of thing for older learners, and something made me ask her for his details.
I was absolutely terrified in my first lesson, but I pushed past the fear and I was able to do it because I had someone supportive teaching me who knew what my fear was and was able to guide me through it. Looking back at it now, I honestly don’t know how I went so long without driving – and in fact, that one decision to push past my fear had flow-on effects that I could never have imagined: without my licence, we would never have been able to move from the city to the country where we live now, which means I would never have met all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way and quite frankly I probably wouldn’t be doing this podcast now.
My point is that if we let our fears hold us back we are preventing ourselves from growing, and when we grow we develop in ways that we could never possibly predict. Life has a funny way of taking us on completely unexpected journeys, and the challenge is to get out of our own way so that we can embrace the adventure. Confronting our fears and working through them is key to becoming what we might be. And besides, staying safe isn’t a guarantee that nothing will go wrong: Helen Keller had a great point when she said, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”
I’m actually using quite a few quotes throughout this week’s episode, because when I was researching it I was quite struck with just how many of history’s greatest figures have had to challenge and overcome their fears in order to create the legacy that they have left behind, and I found picking just one or two of those quotes to be difficult.
Because the thing about fear is that everyone experiences it – everyone, to some degree or another. The only difference between those who succeed and those who never try is whether or not you can get past your fear for long enough to see that the potential reward far outweighs the risk, and that even if it all goes to crap then that’s okay as long as you learn from your mistakes. Getting over a fear of failure doesn’t mean that you won’t fail, but it does mean that you’re going to give it a go anyway. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Fear is never a reason for quitting: it is only an excuse.” And here’s one more quote about fear, and it’s another one from Helen Keller: “Fear: the best way out is through.” And on that note – let’s talk about how to tackle your fears.
Practical steps for dealing with fear
So, how do you work through your fears so that you can get past them? There are five key steps: Five steps – recognise, identify, confront, address and daily action. Let me explain five steps in more detail.
Step one: Recognise the fear. Sometimes we hold ourselves back from doing things without realising that it’s our fear that is responsible for our hesitation, while at other times we might be well aware that fear is in control but we are just not sure why it’s happening. We’ll talk about the ‘why’ bit in a minute, but the first step is to recognise that fear is happening and consider what impact it’s having on us. Self-awareness is half the battle, because often we try to convince ourselves that everything is fine when in fact it’s not – so spend some time observing what’s going on and what impact it’s having.
Step Two: Identify why. Once you are starting to see that fear is happening and the impact it is having on you, it’s time to dig deep to identify why it’s happening (yep, this again!!!). At this point, regular listeners/readers probably know that I’m going to talk about taking the time to really understand what’s going on under the surface, what’s really driving your fears, and you would be right… because, as I always say, when we talk about improving our mental health and wellbeing, our focus needs to be on identifying the root cause of our issues so that we can then confront them. Fear is an emotion, and emotions are symptoms of stuff that’s going on deep down inside. It’s a symptom of needs being unfulfilled, or emotional baggage from our past that’s still weighing us down because we haven’t confronted it and dealt with it. Identifying why could be as simple as asking yourself ‘why’, and if you’re in tune with your baggage then you’ll probably be self-aware enough to know what’s happening, but if you’re not then that’s completely okay – our minds have a cheeky habit of hiding traumatic and confronting stuff from us to protect us, so you might have to dig a little deeper to understand what’s going on. I’ve talked about my favourite technique, ‘The Five Whys’, a couple of times in previous episodes so feel free to listen to or read my ‘baggage’ episode (find it here) for tips on how to do that, or just google ‘Five Whys’. My point here is to really dig deep until you understand what is driving your fear. To understand what needs to be confronted, you need to first understand what it is and why it’s happening. Which brings me to…
Step Three: Confront it. Before you take action to overcome your fears by addressing them head-on (which we’ll cover in the next step), I want you to spend a bit of time confronting your fears, i.e. Confronting what they are and why they exist. This is uncomfortable stuff for a lot of people, and you might want to get some professional support while you do it, but in order to change things you first need to be clear about what needs to change and why. Is your fear of failure responsible for you avoiding living your life? Do you walk away from relationships when things get too deep and meaningful because you have a fear of intimacy? Are self-destructive patterns emerging in your life time and time again because you have not addressed certain fears? Confront the truth, sit with it – really feel it, acknowledge it and own it. I needed to do this when I went through quitting drinking nearly a year and a half ago, because part of my mind was rationalising that I wasn’t that bad – I mean, I only drank once or twice a week, and I didn’t always get so drunk that I would make a fool of myself, so how bad was it really? But I knew that it was taking more and more for me to feel drunk, and then once I was drunk I would drink everything in a ten mile radius – one of my last binges involved three bottles of prosecco and almost an entire bottle of vodka on my own, so things weren’t exactly getting better. I had always relied on alcohol to give me bravery in social situations and to deal with stress, but the older I got, the more I drank, and the more I drank, the more of a hot mess I would be. In the back of my mind I had always feared becoming an alcoholic, because my father was one for many years, and I had to confront all of that to make a decision to quit once and for all (I had quit before but never lasted more than three months. Confronting that I had a problem and processing the fear around it is what made it stick for me this time, and my health has improved enormously since that decision.
Step Four: Address it. Once you’ve confronted it and have a clear understanding of what the fear is all about, and what impact it’s having on you, it’s time to do something about it. Address your fear(s), either solo or with help; because you don’t have to do things alone, but you do have to push yourself… it’s up to you whether or not you’re going to let your fears hold you back. If you need to change the way things are, then change the way things are. If you need more skills, get more skills. If you need more support, get more support. The only thing holding you back is you. Sure, there might be other obstacles that are beyond your control, but there is always a way around everything – even if it involves going sideways or backwards for a bit. When it comes to fear, the choice is yours – confront it and overcome it, or let it overcome you.
Step Five: Daily action. From there, I see the fifth and final step – although it’s never really final – as being daily action – take action every single day, because you don’t just decide that you’re done with a fear and be done with it; it takes constant work and constant effort. Take my example of quitting drinking – the first few months took a lot of work, because it was all too easy to make excuses and justify that being able to stop drinking for that long meant that I didn’t really have a problem, so I could have just one glass… but, because I had sat with my fear and took the time to understand what was going on and how drinking was a manifestation of much deeper issues, I knew that I had gone well beyond the point of moderation ever being an option for me. Some people can do it, I can’t. Acknowledging that I’m prone to addiction and making daily life decisions based on that has been one of the most important things I have ever done for my mental and physical wellbeing. Take actions every day to work on my fears, from the minor (like reading an article and taking time to reflect) to the major (like pushing yourself to do things that terrify you).
What if you’re having trouble pushing yourself past your fear? The answer is fairly straightforward, but it might not necessarily be the answer that you want: Get help. I think it’s always best to try to be the one who drives your own change – after all, it’s your life and your wellbeing, so you have the most to gain and therefore the greatest incentive – but there are some things that are bigger than us. If you’re dealing with deep-seated trauma from your past that’s driving your fears, you cannot and you should not try to deal with that on your own – go see a professional. Immediately. If not sooner. You can possibly deal with that stuff on your own, but it takes a lot time and hard work, and it really needs professional support (because you don’t want to accidentally break yourself).
Summary and three quick tips for dealing with fear
To summarise: Fear is there to protect us, but if we let our fears control us then we’re actually doing ourselves damage in the long run. Roosevelt said it best when he said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and it’s up to you to make the choice to challenge and overcome your fears. You can do it and if it’s important to you then you will do it; just remember to take things one day at a time!
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for dealing with fear:
- Fear is an emotional reaction that’s there to to protect us – but sometimes it can do more harm than good.
- Fears don’t just cure themselves – they require work to process through them and confront them so you can then address them.
- Working through your fears will set you free of them – because it will allow you to get past those things that have been holding you back.
As always, let’s finish up by reflecting on a quote related to this week’s topic. This is a quote from Marilyn French; take a moment to reflect on this quote in relation to the topic of dealing with fear and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“Fear is a question. What are you afraid of and why? Our fears are a treasure house of self knowledge if we explore them.”Marilyn French
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and article posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff), so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about the holidays – we’re coming up a time of year where things can be very challenging for some people and there are lots of potential triggers, like food and drink and family and all that stuff, so we’ll talk through how to look after your mental health and wellbeing and make the most of this time. I hope you’ll join me again for that episode. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.