How to stop feeling scared and start living again

·11-min read
Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

Is being afraid taking over what you do, say and think? Here Dr Pippa Grange, the psychologist who worked with the England men’s football team during the 2018 World Cup, explains how to turn down the volume on fear...

It won’t be a surprise to you, right now, to find out that your body and mind are uniquely primed for fear.

Your incredible, extremely complex brain has what you could call an evolutionary design flaw. It processes negative emotions — especially fear — super fast, and other types of information more slowly. So your brain readily defaults to distress and suffering, and it is particularly good at jumping into fear.

This is because, very broadly, there are two competing systems in your brain. One system, the ancient part, is focused on preservation. It is always vigilant to danger, alert to avoiding risks. The other part of your brain allows you to act from reason and choice, among other things. It works out the fine details of competing projects, develops your character, moderates your social behaviour and helps you grapple with the meaning of life.

The two systems aren’t well co-ordinated. Instead, they work together in an uneasy coalition. So very often on any given day — or more accurately at any given second — there’s a big, unseen fight over who’s in charge. The ancient part is always quicker to step in, as you might have felt in the past few months. And because as human beings we are wired for fear, our culture tends to recycle it and share it and emphasise it too, until it becomes what runs our lives.

During 2019, as I was writing my new book, Fear Less, to share what I’d learnt in my work, I had no inkling fear was going to turn out to be quite so relevant at the moment it was published. The subject of the book came out of what I’d learnt from working as a performance psychologist, in sport and business. I’ve spent almost 20 years coaching athletes, leaders, CEOS and performers in locker rooms and boardrooms, track-side, pool-side, pitch-side and court-side.

In the course of my work and all the conversations it involved, I realised that fear lies underneath so many of our unhelpful behaviours, negative beliefs, from shame and inadequacy to loneliness, jealousy and dissatisfaction. Fear stops us performing at our best — and even when we do, it stops us appreciating the success we do get. You could say that when fear is at your table, it ruins the taste of the food.

I began to analyse the ways that people can learn to overcome fear and to share them, and to use that in my work. I found that one very useful way to look at fear is to divide it into two kinds. There is in-the-moment fear, the fear you feel when you need to face a difficult moment or a challenge. It’s a jolt of anxiety, tight muscles, shallow breathing.

Then there are not-good-enough fears. These are behaviours which are a distorted form of some of our most basic fears. For example, when you feel jealousy, at root you’ll find a fear of not being lovable.

When you get sucked into perfectionism, at root you'll find a fear of failing. When you want to judge people or you feel judged, at root you’ll find a fear of inadequacy. When you feel you have to hide the real you, at root you’ll find your fear of being rejected.

And at bottom of that pile of twisted roots is one big, overwhelming and ultimately human fear: the fear of not being enough, and therefore being abandoned. And I found, in my work, that even in the most successful looking people, often find themselves derailed by both kinds of fear.

FEAR: TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR PRIMAL FEARS

You can learn to override those in-the-moment fears by being deliberate about choosing not to be fearful. You can do this with the kinds of fear management techniques and routines that are followed by athletes at crucial moments – think Rafael Nadal wining
a match point or performers getting into the zone before they go on stage to speak.

I have divided the strategies into three broad camps (see below). The idea is to plan what you have to do, then rehearse the hell out of that plan until it becomes second nature.

A key part of fear management is to stay rational. So it’s good to make the distinction between real, rational fear about what might happen (and the adaptive behaviours that might help),and neurotic worrying. In the present climate, sensible adaptive behaviours are, as I’m sure you know, social distancing, hand-washing and limiting socialising and travelling.

Doing these will help you overcome the more neurotic fears that are less helpful,
such as those that cause irrational behaviour, like buying too many toilet rolls or a huge hoard of face masks.

Our fears about what will happen all have one thing in common – they are always mind-made. Even when some of those fears are valid, our own experience of them, how overwhelming they are, and how much we can manage to counteract our negativity bias, comes down to what we allow our minds to do.

This is important, as if we allow ourselves to give in to the fear of what will happen in the future, it will take us away from what really matters now. And that is connection, clear-headedness, reflection, prudence and compassion.

Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

FEAR: WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU FEEL SCARED

Rationalise your fear

We only have a finite amount of attention, so use it deliberately. Use logic to calm your catastrophising. Talk to yourself and write a version that has meaning for you.

Some examples might be: ‘The experts making the decisions are trained and capable and know what they are doing.’ ‘I’m following all the guidelines that were created by the experts.’ ‘I can find multiple sources of valid information to clarify what to do.’’ There is no value in wasting energy on what might happen, I’ll control what I can.’

Distract yourself from fear

Again, find what works for you. You could listen to music, radio or podcasts, or watch TV. You could make contact with others, engage your imagination in something else (like a game) or engage your cognition in something else (like sudoku).

Process your fear

Create a routine that gets fear under control. Physically counter it with controlled, measured breathing. Use muscle relaxation exercises to calm yourself, physically and emotionally. Or visualise a positive outcome, or use an affirmation and meditate (try apps such as Beeja, Calm and Headspace).

Say to yourself: ‘I drop my shoulders, I lift my head up, I open my back and chest with a deep inhale, I put my feet on the ground,I unclench my jaw, I relax my muscles.’Or, in your head, you can talk to the fear:‘I recognise you. I can feel you flipping my stomach over. Settle down. Breathe. We’re all right.’ By doing this, you’ll speak over the top of the intrusive babble coming from the ancient, fear-driven part of your mind.

Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

FEAR: HOW TO BE LESS SCARED LONG-TERM

The second half of my book is devoted to all the creative and interesting ways people have found for moving beyond their fears — for the future and of the past — how they’ve transformed them into something far stronger and more useful.

One of these ways, that I’ve called Protection In Connection, is key right now. Being seen and known and feeling you belong are fundamental human needs, not just nice-to-haves. In fact belonging may be the strongest psychological desire we have, so important for coping with painful emotions, including fear.

Isolation is taxing. But we are so very lucky to have ways to connect via technology. This is a great time to be creative about showing others you are there and we are connected in common humanity. And to show yourself that borders are psychological, more than physical.

You can probably see how people have found creative ways to connect and help each other. Maybe, in your area, it’s people setting up local groups on nextdoor.co.uk, or organising to make sure their neighbours are ok, or other ways of being generous with their time and help.

You may have found creative ways to be with your family, or to check in with them, without physically being next to them. Our worst fears probably arise when we think about the risk to our biggest treasure; the people we love so fiercely. They may be spread out all over the country or the world.

When that thought arises, can you allow the image of those precious someones to fill you with gratitude and joy. Can that be the thread that connects you over distance rather than one made up of dread?

If it’s the loss of control that you’re finding so hard, that’s not surprising. While we absolutely need to do our bit, there is going to be a major part of this situation that we cannot control. There’s a way of thinking about life that you might find works for you, that I’ve called Useful Surrender.

This is about letting go of what we can’t control, so we no longer feel its huge weight more than necessary. Surrender may or may not be a natural part of your culture and faith. But for all of us the idea of some kind of force(s) greater than us can be of huge value in the face of fear.

One example is the air crews who flew in the Lancaster bomber squadrons in World War Two. Every time they flew, they leant into conditions that incited tremendous fear.

One way they adapted, was Useful Surrender. Here is Ginger Stevens talking about the plane at a beginning of a mission.

His surrender is to make the plane itself an entity with its own power and magic, its own will. ‘You are in her world now… You roar down the runway and all you can hear is the noise, the noise - and it’s a beautiful noise. You’ve got 1400 yards to lift about 14,000 lbs. It starts to seem that she’s going to lose the game against gravity. But just after half way you feel a gentle bounce and then another gentle bounce, and suddenly you’re weightless and you’re airborne. It’s moment’s like that she tells you what she’s all about. She’s magnificent.’

So while the risks were out of the crew’s control, they found safety in their imagination and the idea that it wasn’t just up to them, alone. The point is: if you feel the need to surrender to something bigger than you, then don’t worry if it doesn’t feel logical. That doesn’t stop it being useful.

There’s another kind of surrender that is helpful to counter fear; letting the emotion itself move through you.

So many people squash fear down and swallow it, in order that no-one sees it. It’s one thing to hold back emotion at the moment you’re facing down an opponent in the boxing ring, for example. But there are times and places you should let down your guard.

How much better do you feel after a good cry? If you haven’t done it for a while, try it! I can assure you, I’ve known the toughest of the tough to cry. Or try screaming, roaring, head banging heavy-metal style, stomping, or singing ridiculously loudly. Anything to allow the emotion to flow through you rather than stay jammed up. Emotional energy is fluid: it needs to move through you. Help it out.

Finally, you may have feel that life has lost any joy right now. Alternatively, you may have felt pulled towards humour, even if its dark humour. But can you connect with the people who are finding the chinks of light in the dark? Because if you can find a reason to laugh, any reason at all, even if it’s at your own neuroticism and quirks, it can be very powerful.

Fear Less: How To Win At Life Without Losing Yourself (Vermilion) by Dr Pippa Grange is out now.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Red. Subscribe to Red now to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.


You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting