Overcoming Fear (And the Importance of It)

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this about overcoming fear:

Fear and anxiety are mechanisms that have helped us to survive. You know, if you did not feel fear when you saw a lion over there… in next to no time there would be no you. [Without fear], we would be fearless, but we’d also be very stupid, and we would not be around very long.

Fear is one of our most powerful emotions. Like Archbishop Tutu explained, fear has kept us alive through the millennia and given us the strength we needed to innovate, explore, and evolve into the incredible species we are today. Fear has helped us create new tools to make our lives easier, brought us together during times of crisis, and made us smarter and stronger.

One of our greatest sources of fear is the unknown, but the unknown also grants us opportunities to learn and experience new things we might not have otherwise tried. Pushing through our fears can take us on incredible adventures and shape us into better people. Without fear, we would be complacent, ignorant, and woefully short-lived.

It’s hard to argue the virtues of such an unpleasant emotion, but when we understand fear, we can use it to our advantage instead of letting it control us.

The Advantages of Fear

Fear does a lot more than keeping us safe from lions. When we’re afraid, our adrenal glands flood our bodies with adrenaline, which puts us in a flight-or-fight state of mind. We perform better under stress. We can run further, work longer, and push ourselves harder.

Focus. Fear makes us fully aware and alert and puts us in a good state of mind for prolonged periods of deep focus. When we’re afraid, we’re immersed completely in the moment.

Clarity. Being afraid makes it hard to focus on insignificant things. Fear helps us strip away the things that don’t matter to us and reveal what’s truly important in our lives. With fear comes perspective that’s easy to ignore when we’re calm.

Creativity. Like the old saying goes, desperation breeds ingenuity. When you need to solve a problem, high stakes and the fear of losing everything can motivate better than any reward.

Willingness to ask for help. No matter how self-sufficient we think we are, the illusion of our independence crumbles away during periods of high stress. For better or worse, we all depend on one another to survive and thrive, and that becomes exceptionally clear when we’re afraid. With solidarity comes comfort and strength.

Finally, when we face our fears and things turn out well, the psychological rewards that come from our success is almost always worth the pain. Positive fear, the kind that leads to growth, and stepping out of our comfort zones is exhilarating. It pumps adrenaline and endorphins into our bloodstream, like a runner’s high.

When Fear Becomes a Problem

Too much of anything is a bad idea, and the same rings true for fear. When we repeatedly subject our body to the physical stress of fear, it can wreak havoc on our mental health, our immune system, and can even cause cardiovascular damage. For all its benefits, fear is still an intense experience and one that shouldn’t be sustained over extended periods of time. We simply weren’t built for fear to be our default state.

The good news is most of our fears are of our own creation, which means they can be overcome. A daily meditation practice, good sleep hygiene, and proper diet and exercise can keep our bodies and minds at the top of their game, which increases our sense of general calm.

Of course, some cases of extreme fear or anxiety cannot be dealt with alone. If fear is having a noticeable negative impact on your life, please contact a medical professional who can help you with your specific needs.

If you are currently in crisis, please contact your local/national helpline or mental health center.