Being afraid isn’t popular.
Real men aren’t supposed to quake in their boots during a crisis. Our collective vision of the successful woman does not include her hiding in her office, hyperventilating.
Once we’re grown up, we’re supposed to be confident, competent and fearless. Right? Right. Yeah. But life doesn’t always cooperate. Life keeps handing us situations that, if we’re at all sane and paying attention, make us a little scared — or terrified.
Inability to manage fear is the stuff of situation comedies and chick flicks: We find it funny when a goofy guy awkwardly tries to look more on top of things than he really is. We find it hilarious when a nervous gal gets tongue-tied in her efforts to impress. But there is nothing funny when we find ourselves in such situations. Admitting to the fear or, worse, showing it gnaws at our self-esteem and our self-confidence.
There is an unfortunate byproduct that comes from our reluctance to acknowledge fear. Fear feels like a dirty little secret we can’t talk about except in the form of jokes, disclaimers, or confidences deep in the night, preferably under the influence so later we can deny it all.
Giving fear new names does make it possible to talk about it with our friends — at least a little.
“I’m so stressed out” at the job is okay. “I’m terrified” isn’t. It’s okay to talk about being “a little nervous” when going on a date with a new love interest but it’s not okay to talk about being “scared stiff” except maybe with our most-trusted friend. It seems that we live in a culture where it is more okay to be tense, upset, angry, even furious, than it is to be afraid.
Regardless, the impulse when we’re afraid is to retreat from people and challenges, and hide under the covers. Staying “safe” takes priority even when whatever is scary might be manageable or even might make us grow.
Sometimes a time-out is all we need to gather our courage to confront a new challenge. But often we need to do more than take a day off from life.
By all means, see a mental health professional if anxiety or a depressed mood are frequently interfering with your ability to carry on normal life or to make and maintain relationships. There is no shame in getting help when we can’t help ourselves. A counselor can provide needed support and help you learn more effective ways to deal with challenges in life.
If, however, your fears haven’t reached that level of distress but are still difficult to manage, here are five tricks of the mental health trade that anyone can do at home, in their spare time, for free.
1. Identify your fears
Drag your fears out of the shadows. Anything hidden tends to grow metaphorical teeth and claws. When it does, you are not only dealing with the original fear, but you have added a layer of fear about the fear to deal with. Admit to what you are, down deep, really afraid of. For example, most people who say they are anxious around other people are really afraid of being judged. It’s the judgment, not the people, that inspires the fear. Whatever it is that scares you, you are more likely to be able to overcome it, if you take on the real problem.
2. Remember your strengths
You’ve handled situations in the past. You are probably handling some nervous-making things now. The same ability can be brought into play to manage whatever is upsetting you.
Make a list of times you conquered your fear. Write down what made it possible. This is important data. Much of the time, people do know what to do. Their fear just makes them forget to do it. Keep a reminder list in your wallet so you have it on hand when you need it.
3. Reach out to someone who can offer emotional support
It isn’t helpful to surround yourself with others who feel helpless or hopeless, or who numb themselves to their fears with substance abuse. Nor is it helpful to talk with someone who tells you “get over it” or who minimizes your problem. They may mean well, but they will only discourage you further. Pick someone who will commiserate a bit but who will also encourage you while you work on coping.
4. Practice mindful breathing
Waiting to calm down so you can think is rarely effective. Doing something to make yourself calmer is much more likely to help. Breathe in to the count of five. Breathe out to the count of ten. There are good physiological reasons for doing this. You are literally slowing your system down so you can think straight.
5. Act “as if”
Don’t underestimate the power of faking it. This isn’t a new idea. Philosopher Hans Vaihinger, in 1911, wrote that by acting as if we have already achieved a desired feeling or change in behavior, we can accomplish it. Alfred Adler, early 20th century psychologist, urged his patients to act as if they were already feeling and doing better. It often worked. Today, Positive Psychology and Cognitive Behavior Psychology utilize the same idea. “Fake it until you make it” is a slogan used in Alcoholics Anonymous.
They can’t all be wrong. So — imagine yourself free of your fear. Think about how you would behave differently. Then do it. Start small. Act as if you are already less fearful any chance you get. Often practice transforms an idea into a reality.