Learning to live with fear

When we act from a place of fear, we often don’t make the best decisions. Katie Scott explores how to quieten the alarm…

There are many things I am scared of. I have bubbling insecurities about my abilities as a mother, a wife, a woman and a writer. Full-blown tsunamis of panic about my family’s safety and wellbeing. Whether conscious or buried deep in my subconscious, these fears impact every decision I make.

Our brains are constantly surveying and making decisions, most of which we’re unaware of. ‘Our unconscious is processing an enormous amount of information that we’re not consciously aware is being processed,’ explains behavioural scientist Susan Weinschenk, author of /100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People/. We receive forty billion sensory inputs every second, she says, yet are conscious of only about forty.

When the subconscious recognises a pattern, information is, says Weinschenk, ‘sent to the top.’ We call a gut instinct or intuition. ‘You believe that it came out of the blue,’ she notes, ‘but it didn’t. We’re just not aware of the journey to that point. It’s important to listen to our gut because it’s our whole brain working. It largely developed to help us survive – to keep us safe – but it is also involved in more complex decisions.’

Fear interrupts the brain’s normal workings. Whether we’re in physical danger or faced with difficult decisions, it narrows our focus to one task: survival. At the same time, we slam into a wall of physical symptoms including quickened heart and respiratory rates, and hypervigilance. Living in this heightened state long-term rewires our systems as the ‘old brain’ is strengthened at the expense of a more advanced one.

Even when we are safe, our old brain is on alert. ‘This old brain is all about fear, sex and food…’ says Weinschenk. ‘These basic instincts keep us alive. They are built into our biology, but they can also overwhelm us… I am not out in the wild. I have a house and I live in a fair amount of comfort… I constantly have fear even when I really don’t need to have it.’

TEDx speaker and author Sonia Ovenden speaks and writes of fear keeping us on a path by preventing us stepping off. ‘We will always have an element of fear when we are doing something we haven’t done yet, or if we are changing the way we do things,’ she says. ‘It’s called growth.

‘When we were children, fear was a companion on our journey of growth. As we get older, it’s almost as if our fears get stronger and bigger. The main difference is we become much more conscious of the consequences as we have different commitments and obligations… Fear not only rears itself more often, it tends to be the number one reason why people defer, delay or even avoid making a decision.’

Weinschenk adds that our mood has an effect: ‘There’s a relationship between decision-making and confidence. When we are confident about the decision then a single neuron will fire when you reach a confidence threshold. At this point, you’ll make the decision and, until then, you won’t… It’s kind of like a safety net.’

Beyond our internal conflicts, external realities and perceptions cause fear: physical threat, mental threats, fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of pain… the list is exhaustive and exhausting.

Being alert and fearful is part of our programming. Some fears are irrational; some are a throwback to a time when life was fleeting and hard – as it remains for many. And some are understandable and real. We just have to learn to live with them. ‘You don’t silence your fears,’ declares Ovenden. ‘You choose to move forwards in spite of your fears.’

Weinschenk teaches mindfulness and says that, by staying in the present, we can stop ourselves starting down paths that instigate fear: ‘People who practise mindfulness, the parts of their brain that are reactive to stress literally shrink. It has an effect, albeit a limited one.’

Sonia Ovenden counters physical symptoms of fear by focusing on her breathing. This calms her body so it can recognise it is safe. But she admits she has had to ‘retrain’ her brain to take control: ‘It was a gradual process that enabled me to become much more aware of my thoughts and whether they empowered or disempowered me.’ She has also learnt to ‘flip the fear’ – a tactic that comes into its own in the workplace: ‘If my fear that comes up is the doubt, “What if it doesn’’t work?”, I counter it with the question, “But what if it did?”’

We can also learn to calm ourselves when our reaction is out of proportion to the threat. /Getting Things Done/ by David Allen calls on the analogy of the mind being like water. This, he writes, ‘doesn’t assume that water is always undisturbed. On the contrary, water engages appropriately with disturbance, instead of fighting against it.’ Allen suggests closing ‘open loops’: dealing with outstanding issues in our mind by capturing, clarifying, organising, reflecting on and engaging with them. This helps quell the water’s smaller ripples, leaving energy to focus on the swells.

And there is an argument for embracing our fears and recognising their worth: they can keep us from making potentially dangerous decisions. Our instincts are often right. As Daniel Kahneman writes in /Thinking, Fast and Slow/:

‘People form opinions and make choices that directly express their feelings and their basic tendency to approach or avoid, often without knowing that they are doing so.’ Fear can hold us back from pursuing our dreams, but we can unpack and rationalise that fear. There is a balance to be achieved between our old and new brains, and between destructive and constructive fears. But, all the while, fear keeps us safe. ‘An inability to be guided by a “healthy fear” of bad consequences,’ notes Kahneman, ‘is a disastrous flaw.’

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