When Fear Holds You Back – How to Overcome Fear

When I was a kid I loved, loved, loved scary movies.  I STILL like scary movies, I prefer them over almost every other kind.  But as a kid I REALLY loved them, way more than a little kid should.

My mom was careful and conservative about our TV watching, but I always managed to sneak in the scary stuff anyways.  Occasionally I spent the night with friends or cousins whose families were more liberal with the television.  Also I had an Uncle Mike… he always liked to watch scary stuff, too, so when he was around and the TV was on I would …linger.  And wait, and watch, and hopefully I would see something frightening.  Something that made my heart race and blood pound in my ears.  The scarier the better.  I craved the adrenaline rush, the tingly thrill that started at the back of my neck then skittered down my spine, across my skin, and then exploded at the end of every finger and toe.

Scenes from the scariest movies I’ve ever seen are seared into my brain forever, and they’re all from movies I sneaky-saw as a kid.  The scene with bloody eggs in “The Golden Child,” the part in “Poltergeist” when the mom and daughter come out of the portal covered in gooey red jelly.  Twin girls and the hallway of blood in “The Shining,” and the “EEW, ICK!” factor when Jeff Goldblum’s body parts start falling off in “The Fly.”  Oh, and the shower scene in “Psycho.”

OH THE SHOWER SCENE IN “PSYCHO.”  Not exaggerating, I seriously showered with the curtain half open until I was 18 years old, and only then did I close the curtain when it was MY curtain in MY APARTMENT, and YOU BET YOUR ASS the curtain I bought for myself was clear.  No sneaking up on ME in the shower, NO SIR.

I’ve seen no less than five hundred scary movies since I was allowed to watch them without restraint, many of them scarier than the ones I saw as a kid.  MOST OF THEM scarier than the ones I saw as a kid, by A LOT.  Still, though.  The scary stuff from childhood is permanently burned into a foundational part of my brain.  Even now when I watch the 1980’s scary stuff as an adult and I KNOW FOR SURE that it’s totally fake, even now when I think “Ohmygoodness I can see the makeup, how was this even scary,” even now with adult perspective and experiences, my scariest dreams and strongest fear reactions are because of the things I saw as a child.

If you don’t believe me try and sneak up on me while I’m in the shower.  I guarantee that at the very least you’ll get punched in the face.

[I have to say this… I can’t explain to you how hard it is for me to refrain from cracking open a huge can of “biochemically speaking, based on human physiology…” with regard to this subject.  REALLY REALLY HARD.  Like trying to NOT SCRATCH when you have an itch.  However.  I’ve learned it’s best that when I start talking about science (or politics or art or religion or socialism or free will or freedom of choice) I stop and ask, “Before I go further, do you really want to hear about this?”  I try to ask ahead of time because on certain subjects I’ll just keep talking for days, while normal people’s eyes start to glaze over after about three minutes.  The more fascinating the subject the more excited I get, the stronger my opinion and the longer I talk.  I can’t help it.  To keep this short and to the point, I’ll cut out the “why and how” as much as possible.]

Fear is a fascinating thing.  Of all the human emotions, fear has one of the most drastic, significant, and measurable effects on the human body.  When stimulated by fear a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, body chemistry, hormones, and respiration all change.

It is an accepted belief among biologists that fear reaction is an evolutionary and basal trait necessary to keep us safe.  It is considered a healthy reaction, one that keeps us out of harm’s way, one that keeps us away from danger or injury.  For the most part this is true.  We feel a tingle of fear when we toe the edge of a very high bridge, even if we know logically that the guard rail will keep us safe.  We feel a thrill of adrenaline after a nearly missed auto accident.  We “startle” and feel fight-or-flight when someone jumps out at us, or comes around a corner unexpectedly.  Our bodies react to fear faster than conscious thought, without intention, and often before we even recognize why it’s happened.

Here’s the thing, though.  Whether the fear stimulus is reasonable or unreasonable, real or imagined, fact or fiction, tangible or purely mental, PAST OR PRESENT, the body cannot tell the difference and will react the same.  Regardless of the stimulus, fear response is the same no matter what.  FEAR is FEAR, no matter what.  Physiologically, emotionally, and mentally, regardless of the reality of the stimulus, fear is a REAL RESPONSE.  And we ALL respond.  Not one single person doesn’t react and respond to fear of some kind.

How do YOU respond?

We all know how we generally respond to being excited, or how we take good news.  We usually recognize and can predict how we behave when we’re sad or depressed.  MOST PEOPLE, though, don’t recognize how they behave when they’re afraid.  WE SHOULD.  It’s so important.  When provided with a fear stimulus, ANY fear stimulus, our bodies will react.  And depending on the stimulus sometimes our bodies react HARD.  AND, although how our bodies physiologically react to fear is extremely predictable, how each individual person COPES with fear is UNpredictable.  And different from person to person.

Do you know how you cope?  How do you respond to fear?

Do you hide?  Or avoid?  Do you fight?  Do you run?  When it’s a subtle fear, how do you cope?  Do you obsess, or detach?  Do you fixate on potential problems that haven’t happened yet?  Are you a worrier?

It really is important that you can answer those questions.  It’s important that you know HOW to deal with fear.

To make it a bit easier to navigate fear, let’s break it down into its parts so that we can DEAL with it.  For the sake of this conversation we’ll break it down like this:

STIMULUS = the thing that triggers the fear reflex.  A “scary thing.”

PERCEPTION = the way a person SEES the stimulus.  We all see things differently, and some people see things as scary that another person does not.  If you think mirrors are scary (catoptrophobia, it’s a real thing) then they ARE scary, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about them.

FEAR RESPONSE = also “fear reaction” or “fear reflex.”  Reflexive, the way the body biophysically reacts to the stimulus.  Increased adrenaline, increased heart rate, increased respiration, tightening of the muscles.  “Fight or flight.”  For fears based in anxiety those responses are the same, although on a slightly smaller scale (anxious fear that you left the stove on will still trigger fear response, but not on the same scale as someone jumping out of a closet and (literally) scaring the pee out of you).  Some people are more prone to FIGHT, some are more prone to FLIGHT.  Some people scream like girls and cover their heads (I’m not being sexist, I have seen both men and women do this), some take a fighting stance and put their fists up.  Some people mentally SHUT DOWN and can’t move, can’t cry, can’t scream, like a deer in the headlights (my middle child does this).  Some people hit first and ask questions later (that would be me).  

COPING WITH FEAR = a more cognitive and intentional reaction, how we deal with fear OUTSIDE OF our reflexive fear reaction.  We check the door fifteen times to be sure it’s locked, check the stove to be sure we shut it off, pinch the fat around our middle to see if it’s still big or if it’s gotten smaller.  I carry a handgun SO THAT I don’t feel afraid.  I believe in stocking emergency food supplies to be prepared for danger.  I lock my doors at night, lock my car even in a secure parking garage, watch my daughter walk to the bus stop and be sure I see her get on the bus.  All of those behaviors are BECAUSE of fear, in one way or another, but they’re not “reflexive.”  They’re intentional.

So now I ask.  [You had to know this was coming.  I do this every time.]

What are you afraid of?

And not superficially.  Superficially I’m afraid of stink bugs, specifically brown marmorated stink bugs.  One time as a kid I got one ON ME and I couldn’t get it off… they have super sticky feet.  Since then the sight of one creates a significant fear response.  Fight or flight.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

What are you REALLY afraid of.

I ask that question not in a judgey way, but in an honest one.  Have you ever thought about it?  Do you know exactly what scares you, and why?

Most people would think “Meh.  Nothing really.”  Or they’d say “Yeah, I know what I’m afraid of, but it doesn’t matter.”

I beg to differ.  On BOTH points.  Everyone is afraid of SOMETHING.  YOU are afraid of SOMETHING.  And it really does matter.  OH SO MUCH it matters.

Figuring out what we’re afraid of is the key to “WHY.”  “WHY do I have such a problem with food, and success, and body image?  WHY do I have a hard time dealing with things from my past?”

Your biggest fears matter SO MUCH that I’m going to go out on a limb and say this:


That sounds extreme.  It is.  But it’s true.  Whether your goal is weight loss, or life balance, or mental health, or successful relationships, happy marriage, great friendships, job promotion, religious peace, sexual fulfillment, mental transcendence, you WILL NOT REACH THE PINNACLE OF YOUR GOAL until you KNOW what you’re afraid of and you DEAL with it.

And before you say “Yeah, but I’m not afraid, I just said I wasn’t afraid,” remember…  EVERYONE IS AFRAID OF SOMETHING.  If you can’t easily see what you’re afraid of, it just means the scary things are buried deeper.

On this road to healthy, of aaaall the parts of this journey so far, dealing with my fear has been the hardest part.  FINDING and identifying and dealing with things I’m really afraid of has been BY FAR the hardest part.  I’ve got lots of scary things in my Cathedral, but in true overachiever-perfectionist manner I buried those scary things DEEP.  I hid them from myself very, very well.

I am learning, though.  I’m realizing that THE STIMULI I’m most afraid of, the “scary things,” are intangible.  And hidden.  And subversive, and sneaky, and not necessarily RECENT.  I’m realizing that the things I fear the most are tucked away in my Cathedral DEEP in the sub-sub-basement, in the dark, in the back-most closet behind piles and piles and stacks of baggage.  I’m realizing as I clean out my baggage that the bags in front of the DO-NOT-ENTER, FULL-OF-FEAR closet door were put there ON PURPOSE.  To block that door.  To keep me from accessing the door, to keep me away from the most scary stuff.  To keep me from dealing with it.

I’m realizing that I have used those scary things inside that closet as foundation for my Cathedral in a lot of ways, that certain fallacies in my thinking and certain paradigms I’ve created in reaction to those stimuli have served as basis for many, many, important decisions.  With a sense of sadness I’m realizing that I have built my life based on fear, the fear I feel because of the things inside that closet.

I’m realizing that although I don’t always feel it, I AM SCARED.  About a lot of things.  About some pretty big things.  In that closet full of scary things, there are things like this:

  1. My children will suffer unreasonably and I won’t be able to stop it.  I’ll somehow be the CAUSE of it.  They will suffer because I didn’t do something I could have done, or that I did something I shouldn’t have.
  2. I am not enough.  I’m not enough to be lovable, not enough to keep The Mister faithful, not enough to be treated with respect.  Not pretty enough, or smart enough.  Not thin-pleasant-positive-blonde-busty-tall-slender-girly-feminine-strong-calm-patient enough.  No matter how successful or how great, I’ll never, ever be enough.
  3. Being WHO I AM will chase away the people that I care about.  Being who I am will chase away people that I want to keep around.  If I’m truly myself everyone will despise me because I’m TOO BIG, and TOO MUCH, and TOO HARD to love.  “The way I am” is unacceptable.
  4. If people knew the worst parts about me they’d tell me what I suspect, that “the worst parts” make me gross, and disgusting, and worthless.  That my dark parts are too dark to be passed over, that I am ruined.  Like a bruised fruit unfit to eat, I should be tossed.  Garbage.  My worst parts make me deserving of pain and suffering and the most horrible things that have ever happened to me.
  5. The Voice of Failure in my head, the one that tells me horrible lies?  That voice is right.

I have been told by a lot of people that those things I just mentioned are wrong.  That they’re unrealistic, that they’re as likely to happen as a stay at The Bates Motel.  That “you don’t have to be afraid of those things, those things just aren’t true.  They’re not REAL.”  I KNOW that, on some level.  Logically I know that those five things are “what ifs.”  I know that all five of those scary things are not REAL, and not true, and almost completely unlikely to happen.

But remember, I know that a scary movie is just a movie and STILL it makes me afraid.  I know that a man who thinks he’s his mother will not stab me with a butcher knife through the shower curtain, but still I shower with the curtain open.

I know that I’m not totally worthless, but I’m still AFRAID that I am.

FEAR IS REAL, even if the stimulus is NOT.

So what are YOU afraid of?  Do you know?  What if THE THING you’re afraid of, the thing that you actually respond to with FEAR, is hidden?  What if YOU have a closet full of scary things?  I’m guessing that you do.  I think EVERYONE does.

I think you should find out.

Like I said, fear response is real regardless of your awareness of the stimulus.  Regardless of the REALITY of the stimulus.  Problems arise when “the scary thing” is quiet.  And tricksy.  And HIDING.  The problem comes when the stimulus creating a VERY REAL REACTION is invisible, like mist in the dark, or a monster under the bed… you can’t see it, or FEEL it really, but you respond to it like it’s THERE.  Part of you KNOWS it’s there.

Not an exaggeration.  Fear is a monster, and for most of us it is a monster that grabs us by the throat.  It controls us, and dictates our actions, and changes our behaviors without us even knowing that it happens.

Finding and recognizing the scary things is the first step.

The next step is knowing how you COPE with fear, and making sure that you’re actually COPING.  The next step is fighting back against the fear reflex.

Now that I know what I’m fighting, now that I know what I’m afraid of, now I can fight.


No more running.

Now when I find myself holding back from speaking truth to people because of Scary Thing #3 I know WHY I hesitate.  I can fight through and speak anyways.  I can tell people what I think regardless of the outcome.

When I start to tell people about bad things that happened to me and around me as a kid but then I STOP because of Scary Thing #4, I push through and talk anyways.  I choose to be brave and fight the fear and tell my story because IT HELPS ME, and maybe it’ll help someone else.

When I hear people tell me “you should do this, you should do that” with regard to parenting and I don’t agree but I DO IT ANYWAYS because of Scary Thing #1, I catch myself and say “NO, I know me, I know my kids, they’re fed and they don’t smell bad today, I’m not TOTALLY BAD at this.”  I raise my kids the way I SEE FIT because it’s MY job, not anyone else’s.

When I see a pretty, blond, skinny, long waisted, busty girl walk by that looks NOTHING LIKE ME, instead listening to fear and not eating for a week I look at Scary Thing #2 and tell it to FUCK OFF, then I go home and lift weights and eat a pound of bacon.

When I start to see results and find success, Scary Things #2, #4, and #5 gang up together and push me to self-sabotage.  They tell me that I don’t deserve it, that the success is a fluke, that I’m full of crap if I think I’ll ever get there.  They try to get me to quit, or hurt myself with food or starvation.  I fight back and keep going, put my head down and keep lifting, keep eating well, and although I don’t know what the end looks like I will keep pushing until I get there.

At the end of my day when Scary Thing #5 happens and Failure whispers to me all kinds of ugly lies, instead of giving in to the fear that She’s right I count my blessings, and think of two good things about myself, and think about what I accomplished that day, and make a plan for the next day.

I understand that COPING will look different for everyone, but everyone should cope.  And FIGHT.  And fight in whatever way they can.  And be clear, we can’t always fight against the scary things we find but we can ALWAYS fight against our reflex.  We can override our circuitry when we decide.  We can have the scary thing in our head, not be sure how it got there, not be sure how long it will stay, but know that as long as it IS sticking around WE WILL NOT RESPOND TO IT.  It doesn’t get to be IN CHARGE anymore.

Does that make sense?

Deep subject, but I think it needs to be considered.

I wonder how many people that struggle with weight or health or finding happiness are really struggling with FEAR, and not those other things.  A lot, I’m guessing.  MOST.  I wonder how many people self-sabotage because they’re afraid but don’t know it, and I wonder how many people make decisions in their life because they’re responding to scary things they’re not conscious of.

I wonder how many people would be able to fight their fears and demons just fine, that they COULD cope just fine, if they just knew what they were fighting.  If they knew what they were really afraid of.  If they had inventory of the scary things in their back closet.

What is it that you’re afraid of?  I challenge you to find out.  Find your fear, the innermost and deepest hidden and most protected scary thing and fight back.  Remove the scary thing, or fight back against your natural fear reflex.

On the road of life, demand that nothing stands in your way.  Not even the scary things.

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