Why are we so scared to be scared?

May 16th, 2010 by Steve

I saw something interesting a few weeks ago flying home. The seat to my right  on the plane was empty and soon enough the young lady who had that ticket showed up. She seemed nice enough but I could feel negativity coming from her. As she moved past me to take her seat I could smell the liquor on her.  She stumbled like she was intoxicated, tripping over me and falling into her seat.  As soon as she sat down she took two huge pills and passed out, dropping the almost empty coffee cup she held in her hands to the floor.

The behavior was consistent with someone who was terrified of flying. I have relatives who have the same fear.  In order to get on the plane, they drink as much as they can at the airport and then take pills when seated to make it through the flight. The alcohol and drugs help them pass out so they can deal with the flight. They pass out to avoid their fears.

Why do we put our bodies through such torture rather than face our fears? Is it better to pass out and feel nothing than to sit with the fear, only to know you’ll have to face this same issue again? Personally, I would rather be scared and face it once rather than numb myself and feel nothing. It seems most people would rather avoid fear than conquer it.

Why are we so scared to be scared?

The anticipation of fear is, in my experience, always so much worse than the actual fear itself. Pain in itself is unpleasant but tolerable. When we look back at painful experiences, we don’t often remember the actually physical pain but rather the fear, the unknowing, the betrayal. The intensity and feeling of actual pain – like when you stub a toe, pull your back or even break a bone – is easily forgotten. We remember the experience but not the actual severity of pain itself. This is why people often repeat the same mistakes and go through the same pain over and over. It is also why many leading children’s psychologists say physical punishment is not an effective way to discipline children.  Pain is easily forgotten; fear is not.

Fear is the driving force behind all of the ‘bad’ in the world. We fear not having so we take more, causing wars and greed. We fear being judged so we conform. We fear being alone so we settle. Fear does not just affect the big decisions; it also affects the smaller things. We are overweight because we fear the feeling of hunger. We drink or do drugs because we fear facing our day to day lives. We fear getting our emotions hurt so we become cold and argue to hurt others before they hurt us.

How would things change if we let ourselves experience our fears?

Would we be so obese, as a culture, if we allowed ourselves to be ‘OK’ with being hungry and feeling that emptiness in our stomach?  Would we drink as much if we were comfortable feeling the stress and tension of our day to day lives? Would that poor young woman have needed all that alcohol or those pills just to deal with the fear of being on a plane?

Looking at the plane situation, what could the drugs actually do? Would taking them make her any safer? No. If the plane were to experience a problem, she would suffer the same fate sober or inebriated. As a matter of fact, she could be in a worse place should something happened when she needed to be alert. The drugs were just a way to avoid feeling the fear. She was fooled into thinking they made a difference. The next time she gets back on a plane, she’ll have to go through this whole process all over again.

Most of us know that fear is counterproductive but we suffer its effects nonetheless. We only get past our fears when life forces us to or when we are really ready to let something go. We have something better to work towards so we face our fears and get past them.  The rest of the time we continue our endless struggle against our fears.

So how do we stop being scared of our fears?

The answer is simple but difficult to pull off: you have to face and conquer your fears. I give this advice on how to conquer irrational fears or fears that have been limiting you in life. This is NOT advice given to tackle rational fears like jumping out of planes or fighting.  Those fears exist for good reason.

To tackle our fears:

1. Isolate what your fears are, what are you scared of:

  • Take an inventory of your fears. The list will be long and the more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. It is important to think long and hard about what fears you want to eliminate from your life.
  • Also think through the things you want to change in your life (weight, drinking, relationships, etc.) and try to connect them to a fear. For example, do you drink because you are afraid to face your job, life or spouse?

2. Once you know what your fears are, pick one off the list to conquer.:

  • The more you think about it, the longer your list will get.  Prioritize the big ones, the ones that really limit how you live your life, and choose one to focus on.
  • For my example I will use someone who wants to conquer a fear of flying (maybe the young lady who sat in the seat next to me will read this post and become inspired to face her fears).

3. Analyze your fear and recognize what feeling you are avoiding:

  • All of our fears exist because we are avoiding certain feelings and we have to find out what those feelings are. If you are scared to fly what feeling about flying has you so terrified? Is it claustrophobia? Fear of crowds? Fear of crashing?
  • Identify the feeling you are avoiding so you know what it specifically is about your fear that causes you to be so scared.

4. Make yourself live in that feeling see what it feels like to exist in that state that you’re afraid of:

  • This is the hard part. Once you know what feeling you are scared of, you have to find a way to experience that feeling and sit in it. If you are scared of flying because of a fear of small spaces, then practice sitting in a small space. Know you will experience fear. You will feel the pain of facing your fear, but it will not kill you.
  • Understand it will not be easy. It will be hard.  You will be facing a feeling you have worked so very hard to avoid, but do it anyway. Sit with it, feel it, let yourself experience that feeling you’ve been avoiding for so long.
  • Ask yourself honestly, was it really as bad as you thought it was?
  • Once you get comfortable feeling this feeling or as I like to say “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” you can work yourself up to getting in a plane without the aid of narcotics and eventually to the point where you enjoy the experience of flying.

Hopefully with some work you can conquer some of your fears. There are times when fears are so deeply rooted because they were caused by traumatic events.  In this case, you may need to seek out a therapist to talk to, but you will live a better life once you start working through them.

The more you Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable, the faster you will see fewer and fewer things exist that make you uncomfortable or scared. You will start living life from a place of love instead of fear.


2 Responses to “Why are we so scared to be scared?”

  1. Earl West

    Thank you-these are -really insightful -i think ..helpful essays-well articulated and well presented. i sure can relate to both the writings on “fears” and the first one i read -dealing with the upstart -ego and it,s ability to prioritize reacting in a oneupmanship way to external eventsand the consequent pall that inevitably turns into. Many thanks!!

  2. Althea

    I found your article this morning on the fear of pain which makes sense. I have been living under fear and anxiety for months. I entertained the idea of getting a prescription from my doctor to hide under. I now understand that actually going into those painful “feeling” will help me release the fear.
    I just wanted to say “Thank You for your posting”.


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