Life today is easy and comfortable. There is no real danger we are exposed to in our lifetime and most people live to be old as life expectancy around the world is increasing.
Our ancestors on the other hand, had to fight anything which could kill them -predators, aggression from other species and starvation among other things. They faced real dangers and as we evolved, our brain learned from their experiences.
The first rule in the wild is ‘You either ate lunch or you became lunch’ Over the years, our brain evolved to pay extra attention to anything which could put us in danger and millions of years of being extra cautious has programmed our brains to be negatively biased.
Want to know the best part?
Despite the bias emerging in conditions very different, it continues to dictate our actions. We worry about our safety in spite of living in a much safer world. We make a big deal out of the smallest incident. We come up with different reasons why our survival might be in danger when the reality is far from it.
“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
The number of times in our lives we actually find ourselves in a dangerous situation is often very few compared to the number of times our mind tells our body that we are in danger.
Bottom line is, we have actually forgotten to differentiate between fear and danger.
Do you know what is common between a lion, a high speed car and a human with a gun?
You try to stay as far as possible from all three because all of them are real signs of danger! All three can kill you faster than you can count to 10!
Danger is real. It is a threat that pumps adrenaline in your body and puts your survival instinct in supersonic mode. You either find a way to live and tell the tale or you are headlines for tomorrow’s newspaper.
Danger Kills You! You cannot overcome danger. You can only run or hide.
In contrast, fear is made up. It is all in our head — a reaction in our brains, not a physical thing we can touch.
Fear is like your overprotective parents who either forbid you from doing much because they are afraid something will happen to you or their anxiety overtakes their lives whenever you try to move on to new and exciting things.
The good news is fear can be overcome.
When I started flying regularly, the turbulence convinced me flying was dangerous! Every time I would take a trip, the anxiety from taking a flight literally made me lose my shit. I found myself making frequent trips to the restroom before and during flights. I would hold on to the arm rest until my knuckles turned white!
As a kid the few times I did fly, I don’t remember being scared or even worrying about turbulence! The thought of being in a plane crash had not even crossed my mind!
If you look at data, more people die in car accidents every year than from plane crashes. Yet I wasn’t scared of traveling in a car or driving one!
Our body reacts to fear and danger in the same way — heart starts beating faster, palms become sweaty and we want to run, hide or fight!
When confronted with danger, our body responds in a way which greatly increases our chances of survival, especially if it is a life or death situation. But, how frequently are the circumstances we worry about truly dangerous? Much less than our minds would make us believe!
Yet, we let our fears cripple us. We allow it to completely handicap us. Most of us come up with perceived hurdles which might not actually exist just so we can envelope ourselves in the warm, cozy blanket of comfort.
“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” ~Henry Ford
Powerful Practices Which Can Help Overcome Fear
Check your fuel gauge
Our bodies are mean machines! And like every machine, it needs fuel to continue operating. Low fuel makes us act very strange.We snap. We are irritated. We get easily frustrated. Sometimes, we even faint.
More importantly, it is hard to indulge in positive self-talk when we are tired, sleep deprived, and dehydrated! There is a famous Snickers commercial that goes by the tagline ‘You are not you, when you are hungry!’
So, before you go about indulging your fears and making a big deal out of it, pause. Take a 2 minute time out to assess if you are hungry, thirsty or sleep deprived. If yes, then either eat, drink or take a nap. I bet by the time you are done, refueling your body, you will have enough strength to tackle it.
If you know the disease you are suffering from, it becomes easy to buy medicines or even choose a doctor. But when you have no clue, it is like falling down a deep abyss with no ending in sight.
Giving your fears a name helps humanize them. It immediately reduces the impact it might have on your mental state because now, it is no longer this big unknown giant. To take it one step further, try to visualize and doodle how it might look!
Does it look like the big fat bully from school? Or do you see it attacking you like a wild dog?
Sharing a fear makes it easier to fight it because now, you have your team of Avengers! Most of us have close friends and family who we can lean on in times of crises. We can also leverage them to help us fight our fear.
Second, their advice might actually be useful! When the pandemic started, it was easy for me to start fearing the worst but when I spoke to my friends and my family, a lot of them were having the same fears and anxiety. We started drawing the courage and strength from each other to overcome some of our fears.
Third, in rare cases, they can give you a perspective you may not have considered, one which can instantly dissolve the very thing you were afraid of.
“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.” ~Rudyard Kipling
A lot of our fears are unfounded. Statistically and factually speaking, we often worry about things which rarely happen. For instance, your fear of getting bitten by a shark might prevent you from taking up surfing but when you educate yourself on how many people actually die from shark bites, you will realize more people die trying to take a selfie than through a shark bite.
To educate yourself, talk to the folks who have already drank the Kool-Aid you are afraid of. If you are afraid of starting your own business, you would benefit from talking to a small business owner. If you are afraid of moving to a new city, talk to others who have moved to understand what challenges they faced and how they overcame them.
Ray Dalio, American billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist, calls these folks ‘believable people’. Anybody who has already walked down the same path or is in the same place you want to be, talk to them! Leverage their knowledge and learning. It is easier today than ever to reach out to people through Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook!
I utilized social media to connect with folks who had moved back and it helped me be prepared. Before joining LinkedIn, I spoke to a few existing employees to help me align my expectations.
It will arm you with the right weapons to fight your fear.
Prepare for the worst
Most of the time, our fears are because of the uncertainty. We don’t know how things will play out, which means we are driving blind and nobody likes doing that by choice!
But if you sit down and think clearly, often options emerge. The more time you spend thinking about the worst case, the better you get at preparing for it.
When I was moving from the US back to India, I took two months to just list out and think about my options in case the move back didn’t pan out how I had hoped it to be. It made me sleep better at night.
My worst case scenario was that I would hate my life back in India and regret ever moving out of the US. But the more I thought about it, I realized I could still find my way back. I could easily leave India for higher studies or try to get a PR for Canada and then immigrate out again.
So, what’s the point?
Our brains are wired to stop us from acting because it is coming from a place of protecting us. Since we no longer face the dangers our ancestors did, our brains think of fear as danger and respond accordingly.
We live in one of the safest times and in an environment where we are away from wild animals, can get what we need delivered to our houses and with access to hospitals and doctors at a very short notice! Where is the danger?
As Will Smith puts it
“Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.”
We need to become better at recognizing the fear and separating it from danger. Ignoring danger can lead to death but overcoming your fears will lead you to uncharted territory, to infinite success!
Danger can kill you. Fear just cripples you. Why live a crippled life when you can live a brave one?