One of the most effective treatments that health professionals use to help people overcome phobias is exposure therapy. If a person comes into therapy afraid of spiders, the therapist will gradually work with them to expose them to spiders. The goal is to help the person work through the thoughts, feelings, and sensations they experience. At first, they might just see pictures of spiders, then perhaps plastic spiders, and slowly and gradually build up to interactions with real spiders. The therapist goes about this process carefully with the patient, helping them manage their anxiety along the way. Eventually, the patient begins to realize their misplaced thoughts and beliefs. They also start to recognize that the feelings and sensations they experience are not harmful. We can use this same concept to help us learn how to overcome our fears and take action on our biggest goals.
Fear is Simply a Sensation in Your Body.
Fear is nothing more or less than an unpleasant feeling. Fear, by itself, cannot hold you back from living the life you want to live. But you can hold yourself back by allowing the discomfort of your fears to keep you from doing what you want to do.
Some people try to manage their fears and anxieties through avoidance and distraction. If you don’t go outside, you’re less likely to see a spider. If you watch TV all night you can distract yourself from the fear you feel about possibly getting laid off from your job. Or some of us try to problem solve our fears with overthinking. We analyze, try to drown out negative thoughts with positive ones, fantasize, plan ways to escape, beat ourselves up, rehash, and more.
While these approaches can sometimes be helpful, if we regularly use these strategies to overcome our fears we will face additional obstacles. When we distract ourselves from life’s challenges we waste a lot of time and energy that could be used to create a rich and meaningful life. When we avoid the things we fear our life gets smaller and we can miss out on incredible opportunities. If we try to use excessive thinking to solve our problems it can often increase the intensity of our fears because we become focused on the fear instead of the incredible life beyond our fears.
Focus Matters More than Fear.
Research has shown that most people have similar levels of anxiety when taking tests. This may surprise you. I’m sure you know someone (and might be that someone yourself) who gets absolutely terrified when it comes to taking tests and this overwhelming fear usually leads to poor test results. What research actually tells us though, is that it’s not about fear and anxiety. What sets good test takers apart from poor test takers is the ability to focus. When test-takers are able to fully engage in their exam, instead of getting distracted by their thoughts and feelings, they perform well, no matter how much fear and anxiety they experience.
These results can be expanded to other areas of life. Athletes perform better when they are better able to focus on the task at hand, no matter how anxious they feel. Performance is not related to levels of anxiety or fear. Performance is determined by your ability to focus on the moment and the work you are in.
Channel the Energy from your Fear.
Fear is a natural part of life. The important thing to remember is that fear is not harmful. You cannot be hurt by fear. It is a feeling or sensation in your body. It may be uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous.
Have you ever heard a public speaker, athlete, or other performer talk about being wired, pumped, or amped up prior to getting on stage or playing their game? They aren’t using the words fear or anxiety, but the sensations they are experiencing are the same sensations we feel when we are anxious and afraid. Your body has an automatic fight or flight response that triggers in the face of real or perceived risk. It is risky to go onstage and perform, you might make a fool out of yourself, people might not like how you do it, or any number of things. Same thing with athletes before a big contest.
Their fight or flight response has been activated and they start having increased blood flow, heightened awareness, and a whole host of sensations in their body. Some describe this as fear. Some see this as energy. And that energy can be channeled into the activity they are about to do. That is what separates the successful from the people who allow fear to hold them back.
It doesn’t matter how confident you feel. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. Most athletes and performers will tell you that those feelings and sensations are always there. Fear doesn’t go away. Instead, we must learn to think of our fear differently. See your fear not as a danger that needs to be avoided but as a source of energy that can be channeled into a deeper level of engagement with the activity.
Be Strong and Courageous.
You cannot live your life without experiencing fear and anxiety. However, we don’t have to live in fear, allowing fear to control us and hold us back from living the incredible life we were created for. Instead, we can recognize that fear is just an emotion, a sensation that we feel in our bodies. Instead of being overwhelmed and distracted by the experience of this sensation, we can learn to overcome it. We can learn to notice and name our fears, allowing the feelings to exist and not getting caught up in worry over the experience or the sensations that come with it. When we feel the energizing sensations of fear in our bodies we can turn that energy into focused action on the task in front of us.
Several times in the Bible we see the command to “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear…” God isn’t expecting us to never experience the feelings of fear. Instead, God is calling us to be strong and courageous in the face of our fears. We trust that God is with us. God is strengthening us and will help us overcome our fears and take action to live the life we are called to. God will see us through. Even in the midst of our fear, we take action doing the work that God has called us to. This is strength and courage, pressing through and showing up, even with our fear. Use the energy of your fear to focus, engage, and courageously do the incredible.
Additional Resources to Help Overcome Your Fears and Take Action
The Confidence Gap: A guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt book by Russ Harris