Fear is Just a Message

Fear is nothing to be afraid of. Most often it’s fear of the unknown, of randomness, our fear of fear itself. We feel that our fear might be a signal of serious risk, and that possibility makes us turn away.

If we learn to discern the very rare signals of real danger from the much more common fears of imagined or merely possible danger, we can learn to react with curiosity to the unknown, and save our adrenaline and cortisol for the real threats. Anxiety is mostly fear of the unknown, of imagined threats, and doesn’t serve us well.

Fear is not one-dimensional. Fear is a messenger, and a message, that we can learn to interpret. I’ve learned to hear fear’s whisper of “be very afraid” as “look right here. Instead of turning away from fear, we should peer directly at its source. Like any other emotion, fear wants to win, and when we turn away we give fear the upper hand. If most of all we fear the unknown, then turning away from that which we feel fear of does nothing to resolve the fear. Furthermore, anxiety is exacerbated by avoidance—we strengthen the neural pathway laid down by turning away from the subject of our fear (or fear itself), and so we reinforce the tendency to turn away.

It turns out that we need a little bit of fear in our lives, to signal what we should be paying attention to, to show us where we should be looking—and to indicate that we are growing and stretching, and not hiding in our comfortable shell.

Here’s a longer piece that I wrote about Fear, Flow and Freedom.