According to the philosopher Robert Soloman, we become afraid when we sense the threat of impending danger and when we feel unable to protect ourselves. Fear prompts defensive maneuvers to get away and facial expressions that alert others to danger. Andy Warhol captured a sense of fear very well in this tryptic.
Sometimes fear is overwhelming and traumatic, prompting us to shut down or freeze. This can happen in an individual, or in a whole society. FDR famously warned our nation about the dangers of fear in his first inaugural address, explaining how as we tried to recover from the Great Depression, our fear of our fear could be our undoing. He aptly described fear as a "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance". We become anxious when we anticipate unavoidable dangers and once we are anxious, everything seems more dangerous -- and so we withdraw from taking any chances to improve things. We see similar patterns happening today as we try to recuperate from the recent recession.
The good news is that we can use our Reason to overcome or manage our excessive fears. FDR is a remarkable example of someone who must have overcome many fears: despite being paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, he ran for president of the United States during the Great Depression, and then bravely lead this great nation out of economic disaster and through the horrors of World War II.
Fear and anxiety can result from threats to Primitive, Social and Reasonable aspects of our Self. There are certain triggers that typically scare each of our three aspects:
Our Primitive aspect is predisposed to be scared of cues that indicate possible physical threats, things like heights, predators, insects, snakes, loud noises, and darkness. Some of us are more predisposed toward fear than others. However, despite having tendencies to fear certain things, many of our fears are acquired based on experience.
Our Social aspect is afraid of being excluded, abandoned, forgotten, or scorned. Relationships are soothing and they help reduce the intensity of many of our negative emotions, especially our fears.
Our Reasonable aspect is scared by lack of meaning, an uncertain future, and making mistakes. It suffers from existential worries and can become obsessed with any fear.
Fear is a powerful motivator, like all emotions. And fear of fear creates its own problems, leading to irrational phobias and paralysis that interferes with economic recoveries and personal progress. Lesser fears stop us all from persisting with difficulty and trying new things, limiting our success and shrinking our world unnecessarily.
How to use your Reason to try to manage your fears?
Before beginning to manage your fears better, take a moment to think about what sorts of things scare you. Do you fears cluster around physical dangers, social concerns, or more philosophical matters?
What are your physical and primitive fears? For example:
- What animals or insects do you fear?
- Are you scared of heights, closed in spaces, fire?
- Are you afraid of loud noises, spilled drinks, things coming at you?
What are your social fears? For example:
- Do you worry about being excluded from groups, or found lacking?
- Are you afraid of rejection or abandonment?
- Are you afraid of being mocked?
- Are you afraid of being alone?
What are your intellectual or philosophical fears? For example:
- Are you afraid of trying to learn new things, reading challenging books, or memorization? Does your fear stop you from learning or trying something new?
- Are you afraid that you have no meaning in your life?
- Are you afraid of the state of the world today?
- Do yo do anything to address your fears?
Write down the fears that are holding you back in life. How are these fears interfering with your life? Which ones would you like to work on overcoming or managing better?
Think about when and how your fears first developed? Did you learn to be scared from watching or listening to others, or did become frightened from your own experience?
Thinking about the source of your fears lets you identify those that may lingering unnecessarily from earlier in your life. Addressing those fears can require innovation, hard work, and the courage to try something new, but it's better than feeling frightened and paralyzed for no good reason.