Many of my clients contact me out of fear: fear that they are pursuing the wrong career, fear that they will lose their job, fear that they are stuck in their job, or, on the personal front, fear of being cheated on or left, fear that they are getting too old to meet a partner, or have a baby, or move to a different part of the country, or go back to school, etc.
Today I will write in brief about a number of ways to dissipate that fear. Please note that there are numerous situations in which fear can be of value: approaching a snarling dog, walking down a dark unlit alley in a bad part of town, driving your car on an icy road. In these instances and many others fear allows us to plan for negative contingencies and improve our safety. However in most situations fear is either unwarranted or inactionable, and tends to dampen the creative thinking that might lead to better solutions to the fear-laden problem.
Here in brief are a few of the primary methods for bringing your fear down to a manageable level*:
The first two are cognitively based, involving looking into and then changing one’s thoughts: disputation and “worst case scenario” analysis.
With disputation you address specific, identifiable fears either with evidence from your past that contradicts that fear or with new ideas that can help minimize it. Let’s say you are tasked with preparing and delivering a technical presentation to a large, sophisticated audience, and are terrified that you will make a fool of yourself because you are not an expert on the subject and are uncomfortable speaking in public. You might remind yourself of previous times that, despite discomfort, you were able to successfully address a large, potentially critical audience (assuming such times existed). Or you could remind yourself that there are resources you can tap to improve the likely outcome: repeated rehearsing, coaching from a mentor, enlisting a co-presenter, etc.
In thinking about worst case scenarios you fully anticipate the negative outcome that you fear, but take the time to realistically examine the fallout from that outcome. So, for example, you might fear losing a job and be terrified that as a result you would run out of money and become homeless. Looking at the worst case, however, you could remind yourself that you once lost a job before and were able to find another one well before you became homeless. And that you don’t like your job anyway, so losing it may provide you with the “kick in the pants” that will motivate you to look for a job for which you are better suited.
An approach for dismantling fear that comes out of the Buddhist tradition is Mindfulness. As we pay close attention to the constant generation of ideas, the constant stream of chatter, that is produced by our minds, we can start to appreciate that fear may have no truly legitimate cause, but is simply one of the thoughts/emotions that is being produced by the hyperactive mind. Through meditation we can learn to observe the thoughts and associated emotions that arise from a neutral place, without being “captured” buy them, simply noticing how they come and go. The sixth point in my blog post of October 26, 2014 (“Half a Dozen Tips on Ways to Increase Your Productivity) elaborates further on this technique.
Testing for Overreaction: As human beings we have been wired by evolution to be exceptionally sensitive to danger/risk. However that sensitivity varies by individual, ranging from the pathological fears of the paranoid to the often foolish boldness of many adolescents. What is your general posture vis-a-vis danger? Do you tend to overreact or, less commonly, perhaps you pay insufficient attention to the signals around you that would suggest that fear, or at least extreme caution, is warranted? By knowing what your general tendency is in this area you can adjust your thinking to more realistically assess fear-inducing situations.
Another approach, behaviorally-oriented, involves taking action. As referenced above under “Disputation,” there may be any number of practical steps that you can take to make a negative outcome less likely, ranging from asking others to help you deal with the fearful situation to bringing your general level of anxiety down through exercise (or perhaps even medication) to turning on the TV and watching a sitcom that will put you in a much better frame of mind.
Again, I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t prepare for your fear-evoking situation coming true. But what I am suggesting is that beyond a certain point worrying about an outcome ceases to be of value in planning for the future, and becomes highly counterproductive. So in general the less fear the better.