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In his book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener talks about the function of fear.  “Emotions are not simply personal whims that undermine our ability to think straight. Emotions are functional, and each serves a specific purpose.”  Guilt, he explains, helps us stay true to our personal and societal values, anger prepares us to defend ourselves, happiness allows us to let down our guard, and fear helps us protect ourselves from danger.

Fear of Fear

Just because we are no longer threatened by wild animals or roaming predators, does not mean that our emotions have kept pace with the comforts of modern society.  “We are built to be afraid,” says Diener.  Fear of natural calamities has been replaced by fear of being judged and rejected by others. The psychological impact is the same. The issue is that our need for social acceptance often inhibits us from being courageous.  The pressure we feel to be smart, successful, and admired can cause us to avoid risks and act too conservatively.

Thinking Errors

Diener’s advice is to acknowledge your fear and evaluate how much credence you should give it.

A straightforward approach to getting past roadblocks is presented in the book You Are Not Your Brain. Authors Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding offer a 4-step strategy for combatting what they refer to as thinking errors that result from fear and anxiety. Some common thinking errors they identify are:

All or Nothing Thinking Example: “if I don’t do this perfectly, I will have   failed”
Catastrophizing Example:   “If I make a mistake during my presentation everyone will think I’m   incompetent.”
Should Statements Example: “I should have   helped my teammate with her project, and now she won’t support me for a   promotion.”
Faulty Comparisons Example:   “Everyone else is smarter than I am. What’s wrong with me?

How To Deal With Thinking Errors

Here are the 4 steps Schwartz and Gladding recommend:

Step 1: Relabel  – In this step you identify your thinking error and uncomfortable feelings (churning stomach, shallow breathing).  Example: “I feel very anxious when I think about tomorrow’s presentation.”

Step 2: Reframe – Acknowledge that your fear is a result of false brain message and isn’t you. Example:  “This fear is not who I am it’s just my brain sending me false signals.”

Step 3: Refocus – To break the cycle of unproductive, negative thinking, do something to direct your attention to something productive such as listening to music, reading a book, or watching a comedy show.

Step 4: Revalue – Remind yourself that the negative thoughts, impulses or urges are nothing more than thinking errors that have nothing to do with your value. Example: “These thoughts seem very real, but I shouldn’t focus on them.”

The next time fear and anxiety stop you in your tracks try the steps above. You may still have butterflies in your stomach, but you’ll have a strategy for moving ahead in spite of them.