I know, I know. Fear? Really?! Yep, really. Hear me out and read these four reasons why fear is one of the best emotions:
Fear is neurologically and physiologically very close to excitement.
Chemically, the rush you feel when you’re about to rear-end the car in front of you is the same as the rush you feel going onstage to perform. So what does make the difference between fear and excitement? Thoughts. Language. Context. We ride a roller-coaster and feel excitement; we walk in on someone robbing our home and feel fear. Should you feel excited when you see a stranger rummaging through your stuff? No, of course not. But what about when the context is less clear? Interviewing for a new job, getting married, applying to grad school, getting ready for a new baby, sending your last baby out into the world, going for your personal best in a race… our emotional experience of these situations and countless others depends not on the clarity of the context but on the thoughts we choose and the language we use. Most of our lives are filled with experiences in which we have the freedom to choose excitement or fear. When I notice the neurological and physiological signs of my limbic system kicking into high gear and adrenaline pumping through my body, I’ve challenged myself to frame my experience as exciting rather than scary. Lots of times when someone describes a current challenge to me, I’ll say, “How exciting!” Fear serves an important purpose (I’ll get to that in a second), but if it’s not helping me literally survive, I’ll use fear to get to excited as often as possible.
Fear is a signal that my brain and body are working the way they’re supposed to.
When something life-threatening is happening, it’s good to feel scared. Take my most recent camping experience for example: It’s the middle of the night high in the mountains and I wake up to my husband saying, “Babe, there’s something out there.” I listen quietly and yep, I clearly hear the sounds of large animals going through the trash we mistakenly left out in the campsite. We both immediately think there are bears within feet of our tent. Our two-year-old is asleep next to me and our young sons are sleeping in their own tent next to ours. Within seconds, I could feel the physical symptoms of fear take over: I felt cold and shaky, my bladder and bowels were preparing to empty, my heart was racing. Emotionally, I was terrified and desperate. I was thinking about how to get from the tent to the car with all my children while my husband distracted the bears. All I could think about was the immediate present and future. And guess what? This is all GOOD NEWS. No, not the bears (which turned out to be deer), but the fact that my brain and body used fear to keep me safe is excellent. We’re supposed to feel scared when a life is at stake! (Or perceived to be at stake.) Whether it’s a fender bender or an intruder in our home or a bear/deer at your campsite, fear is appropriate and has a purpose. Life without fear would be short and unnecessarily painful.
Fear is simply part of our lives.
As Tara Brach writes, “As long as we are alive, we feel fear.” When fear isn’t used to save our lives, it’s used to prevent us from emotional pain. Avoidance of emotional pain makes some sense: why would anyone want to feel shame, disappointment, regret, sadness, or anything negative? But here’s the thing: emotional pain is unavoidable. It’s part of being human. There’s a theory that negative emotions account for 50% of our experience as humans: FIFTY PERCENT! That’s half our lives! So being afraid of emotional pain and attempting to avoid negative emotions is like trying to skip out on half our lives. And here’s the other thing: we cannot selectively numb or disconnect from our emotions. This is an all or nothing situation. In order to truly numb the negative, we must shut down completely, which means we feel neither the bad NOR the good. So whatever we do to avoid our hard feelings, like fear, will effectively disable our ability to experience the good ones, too. Who wants that?
Fear is a sign of opportunity for growth and development.
This is where reframing and thought control comes in very handy. Since fear and excitement are so close to the same experience, it doesn’t take much to switch from a fear-based perspective to an excitement-based one. Fear is limiting and overwhelming (as it needs to be in life-threatening situations) while excitement is open and expansive. Since most of you reading are unlikely to live under constant physical threat, it’s fair to assume that most of our fear comes from non-life-threatening situations. That means our fear is based in our thoughts and not in our circumstances. So, ask yourself this question: What would change if I decided all these decisions I get to make are exciting instead of scary? Don’t judge yourself for being scared; use that experience of fear to notice the thoughts that come with it and change those thoughts if they don’t serve you. “I’m afraid I won’t get the job,” could become, “I’m so excited to check out this new company.” “I’m scared to get married,” could turn into, “I can’t wait to learn and grow alongside this person.” “What if I don’t get into this program?” could be, “What if I do get accepted?” You get the picture.
There is so much more peace living a life based in excitement rather than based in fear. And since fear and excitement are chemically nearly identical, it’s not too far off to think you can live much less fearfully and much more excitedly! Fear is actually good news a lot of the time – and is part of a healthy spectrum of emotional experiences. The fun ends when fear highjacks your everyday decision making. The challenge is to consider fear a valuable clue that something important, maybe even exciting, is happening.