What’s the four-letter f-word that can determine the trajectory of one’s entire life path?
It’s not the infamous curse word- it’s fear. Fear is the ultimate emotion; the stabilizer that defines us as conscious humans. It’s what makes us vulnerable, and it’s what also makes us pause, think, and react (or not). Fear runs through us mercilessly, and it rarely adheres to wisdom or logic.
We miss opportunities because of fear. When we live in fear, we hold ourselves back, make excuses, and exist in this strange limbo of stagnation and boredom. There is no doubt that it can be debilitating- so how do we cope with it?
Dismantling What Fear Truly Means
As much as we may want to believe that fear is this random emotion, there is nothing random about it. Fear is merely a response to a real or perceived stimulus. When we detect a sense of danger, our bodies generate a physiological response to “cope” with that danger.
However, the absence of fear would likely kill us. Without fear, we wouldn’t flinch at the sight of an angry bear or raging fire or a loaded gun. We wouldn’t know how to decipher safety from danger.
Fortunately, many of us do not have to spend our daily existences avoiding bears, fires, or guns. So without these imminent threats impeding our well-being, why do we still struggle with fear?
Again, it comes down to deciphering safety from danger. Yes, there is legitimate danger (i.e., the bear or gun). But, there’s also infinite shades of uncertainty and vulnerability that exist throughout our daily lives. There’s the fear of abandonment, of getting physically hurt, of failing ourselves or others. While all of these may not represent straightforward paths of death or destruction, our emotional state does not always know that difference.
Identifying Fear In Recovery
In my work as a therapist, I advise clients that the absence of fear in recovery is never the goal. That’s because, of course, I believe that fear is a healthy emotion that we all experience. After all, we need to know when we’re safe and when we’re in danger.
I find that fear in recovery often falls into two categories:
- Fear of relapse (failure)
- Fear of things not getting better in recovery (also failure)
Of course, these are both valid fears. When people fear relapse, this is often a good thing. It means that they value recovery enough to know that they don’t want to jeopardize it. Moreover, the fear of things not getting better may also be a good thing. It shows a sense of humility (being able to recognize the need for improvement) and a sense of initiative and ambition for change.
Dealing With Fear In Recovery
Most of us react with fear via our fight-flight-freeze responses. Those who “fight” face their fear head-on. They bulldoze through the emotion- sometimes without even recognizing or validating that the emotion exists. The “flight” people often avoid the situation and run because the emotion is too overwhelming and painful. They face the highest risk for relapse or other maladaptive behaviors. Finally, freezers, well, freeze. They almost become paralyzed from their fear, which results in the lack of proactivity and growth.
As you can see, neither of these responses are necessarily “better” than the others. Dealing with fear isn’t just about fighting or not fighting.
Instead, it is essential to learn how to make peace with fear. Peace counteracts anxiety; it creates a space for breathing and acceptance. In other words, by learning how to lean into fear, we learn how to avoid letting fear dictate our actions.
Making peace with fear first means appreciating the role fear plays in our lives. Rather than judging yourself for feeling afraid, consider how you can acknowledge the importance of this feeling. How is this feeling keeping you safe? How is it helping to keep you alive?
It also means learning how to recognize fear as an emotion. If we can look at feelings as data rather than directions, we can learn how to control how we react to them.
Automatically responding to our feelings often leads us into making irrational decisions. When we can take the time (even if it’s very brief) to explore why we’re feeling a certain way, we can better determine how we want to cope with that feeling.
Fear is not the enemy. It is just a feeling. Ultimately, we have the power to choose how we interpret, manage, and react to that feeling.