The thing you are most irrationally afraid of is the thing that is least likely to occur.
How do I know that?
Because when you’re afraid of something — truly, genuinely afraid of it— you avoid it. It becomes unpleasant to think about, so you don’t. When you obsess over a fear, especially one that’s illogical, you must have some kind of psychological incentive.
Most often, the thing you are obsessively scared of is actually a more neutral occurrence onto which you are projecting your very real fears about something a bit deeper. The feeling of anxiety is real. What’s not real is the context you’re making up in your head.
What you perceive to be “safe” is what you’ll allow yourself to worry about, because it’s a battle you know you can win. Until we pinpoint the actual root of the suffering, we cannot really heal.
There are four ways to get over an irrational fear. Let’s start with the most common.
First, irrational fears are often metaphors, or symbols, for what we are actually scared of.
If someone has anxiety about being a passenger in a car, but not driving, they might actually be afraid of losing control, or their lives “moving forward” in a way they don’t want them to. If someone has anxiety about throwing up, they might be afraid of losing control of their emotions, or the way others perceive them. If someone is afraid of having too many bills, they might be afraid of losing the sense of security and self-efficacy that they associate with emotional independence and freedom.
The truth is that often, our irrational fears serve us as abstractions that let us know what’s really going on deep within our psyches.
Instead of trying to figure them out on the surface, it can serve us to try to figure out what they could be representing, and then find another way to meet that core need that is being neglected.
There are different types of irrational fears.
Some of them are completely abstract, and typically metaphorical, as we talked about before. Others are more realistic, and these are the harder ones to get over. These are fears like losing a parent, or getting an unexpected letter from the government. It happens, so it’s hard to talk yourself out of it.
However, when we get to the point that our lives are being reoriented or in any way controlled by them, there is often more going on than what appears on the surface.
This is where we must dig. To dig into the core of your fear, you have to logically spell out what’s wrong, and then what’s the fear beneath it. You want to keep digging until you get to the feeling you are afraid of, not the thing itself.
Here’s a very short example:
- I am afraid of losing work.
- This is because I am afraid of failing.
- This is because I am afraid of others seeing that I have failed.
- This is because I am afraid of the feeling of being embarrassed.
It often requires many more layers to uncover the fear of the feeling, but once you identify it, you can start to work with it.
Let’s say you are afraid of the feeling of being embarrassed. Once you know the true fear, you can start to unpack why that is so scary for you, and then you can work on building your self-esteem, so that the prospect of being negatively judged isn’t so terrifying.
The most common treatment for fear is exposure.
This is because most of the time, irrational fears are fueled not by overthinking, but by underthinking.
When you’re afraid of something, you avoid it. What this leads to is a mental process that looks something like this: You imagine the worst possible outcome, but then you never imagine what would happen afterwards. You never figure out the resolution or how you’d move on.
When you’re not afraid of something— even if it’s objectively scary— it’s because you have fully processed how you’d respond and react to it if it happened. Instead of getting stuck in the fear of a feeling, you can say, yeah, that would stink, but it’s life and I’d handle it if it ever came up.
This is essentially you exposing yourself to the threat, and then coaching yourself through how you’d handle it.
The last, simplest, but most profoundly effective tool when it comes to fear is remembering that you always have a choice.
When a scary thought comes up, you can say to yourself: Or I can choose not to worry about this.
When a thought comes up in your mind, you have less than five seconds to choose not to react to it. Most people function on autopilot, simply obeying the thought, and allowing it to lead them into an emotional spiral. If you can notice the thought before you react to it, you can start to lengthen your delay time. Once you have opened that span to about 5+ seconds, you can start actively choosing not to engage with it. This is how we build true emotional freedom.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that you can choose not to be afraid, because this concept is often conflated with trying to not choose thoughts or feelings. Thoughts and feelings will come up no matter what, but how you choose to respond —and regaining control of that response— is where you will regain your mental strength.