How to Overcome Fear And Achieve Your Goals

how to overcome fear and anxiety
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Thinking rationally about the worst-case scenario can help conquer anxiety and fear

Which is your worst fear? Which anxiety is holding you back from your goal? How do you overcome fear to achieve what you want to do?

As mentioned in the section on risk, if we want to achieve anything, we will likely face dangers, accidents, and mistakes. But we must not let fear of failure stop us from acting. That is why we need to reduce the risks where we can but then take courage and act. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, just the decision to act despite feelings of fear. 

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” – Muhammad Ali

When fear strikes

I was in my room, watching the Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King) on my laptop. I had my earphones in, and, despite the small screen, I was gripped. It was the battle of Minas Tirith, and the city was surrounded by an evil horde of orcs with their siege engines. As the army attacked the city and the rocks flew from the catapults, pounding the citadel I could almost feel the walls shaking. Another huge stone soared through the air to strike. Boom! My chair wobbled. 

The sound on my laptop was good but I had definitely felt something. I took out my earphones and listened. The was a crashing sound, this time from outside my room, not from my computer. 

A moment of realisation;  we are under attack, in the real world. 

I was in a military base in Iraq in 2004. It just turned out that, in a weird bit of synchronicity, the local militants had decided to attack our base with rockets, just when I was enjoying a bit of downtime and watching a movie. 

My first thought was how inconsiderate of them it was. I genuinely needed a break!

Then, a flood of other thoughts, with accompanying images involving the destructive power of exploding rockets, rushed into my mind and I could feel my heart start to race.

Overcoming fear: breathe, think, do

But now my training and preparation kicked in. I took some deep breaths, regained control over my thoughts and then got ready to act. 

I put on my helmet and body armour, a drill I did not really need to think about but helped me further regain my composure and prepare myself for action. 

Then, doing my best to exude calm, I walked out of my room into the chaos outside and headed to the operations room. When I stepped into the room, I saw numerous wide eyes turned towards me. Many of the young soldiers were dealing with shock, fear, and anxiety. 

This actually helped me as I could now focus on alleviating their feelings rather than dwelling on my own. A little time, some simple actions and something to focus on meant that my head was now clear enough to take control of the situation, direct tasks to my team and check for casualties. 

How fear of a worst-case scenario can hold us back

The best start to overcoming fear is understanding the psychology behind it. Fear and anxiety are natural emotional responses, but they can limit us. We generally think of fear or stress as relating to external pressures, whereas anxiety is generally used as a term to refer to internally generated worries.

Many things can trigger fear and anxiety, but once initiated, these emotions can overwhelm us and stop us from thinking or acting rationally. Some of this is linked to our natural defence mechanisms and the ‘fight or flight’ physiological response to threats. Neurologically, because rational thought is slower than intuitive thinking, our brain shuts off the pre-frontal cortex and relies instead on the limbic system, in a process often referred to as ‘amygdala hijack.’ 

Amygdala hijack happens when the amygdala interprets something as threatening and then sends a signal to the hypothalamus, the brain’s command centre. The hypothalamus then stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which activates the adrenal glands, pumping epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. 

This adrenaline prompts physical effects such as expanded airways, an increased pulse and heightened heart pressure. Senses – such as sight and hearing – are sharpened and sweat glands are opened. The epinephrine also starts a release of glucose and other nutrients into the bloodstream. 

These changes impact other parts of the brain. The frontal lobes, the areas of the brain that deal with reasoning, decision-making, planning and evaluating emotions, can be temporarily crippled. The amygdala overrides the frontal lobes if it perceives something as a significant threat. When this happens, our responses become more primal and less rational.

All these things prepare the body for action; to fight or to run away. This is useful if you are stepping into a boxing ring or up to compete in a race, but slightly problematic if you are trying to think rationally to overcome a problem. So, what can we do?

 Well, understanding this is the first step in learning to manage these responses. From there, some tools can help us. 

The Right Questions First-Aid Kit Tool: prepare for the worst and overcome fear

When thinking about The Right Questions Framework and the equipment we want to pack for our adventure, we can think about a first-aid kit when it comes to worst-case scenarios. We carry a first-aid kit just in case disaster strikes but we also learn how to use the items it contains and we train ourselves to deal with crises. This preparation reflects our mental preparation to deal with our fear as well as the circumstances themselves.

We can take this concept into how we plan for other goals we want to achieve, the aim being to identify the fear-inducing scenario, plan for it and prepare ourselves (for example with kit or training) to deal with the situation, should it arise. 

To use the conceptual tool, follow these steps:

  1. Creative thinking. Brainstorm what you think is the worst-case scenario or most fear-inducing situation (you can use the previous brainstorming multi-tool exercises to help)
  2. Emotional regulation. Take a moment to analyse how this potential scenario makes you feel. Write down the emotions evoked by that situation
  3. Critical thinking. Now think critically and rationally about the situation. Ask:
    1. How likely is this circumstance to come about?
    1. What can you do to prevent or prepare for it?
    1. If does happen, how could you respond to it, in a positive way?

This helps in a couple of ways. Even just visualising and thinking through such situations can limit the adrenal response you get if that event should ever occur. It also pre-wires the brain to help you think more clearly if the worst happens.

“Truth – more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality – is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.” – Ray Dalio

Worst case scenario example:

For example, if achieving your goal or dream requires a change in your professional life you may face fears about your job, your promotion prospects, or your financial security.  

This can trigger thoughts such as “I can’t do that – I would lose my job!”  This is reasonable enough, as losing one’s work can have major consequences, but many less rational defeater beliefs can jump into our minds at this point such as:

  1. “I won’t be able to pay my mortgage/student loan/credit card bill/monthly streaming subscription*”, or
  2. “My boss/parents/family/imaginary friend won’t let me*”, or
  3. “I will lose my friends/the good favour of my colleagues/the respect of my dog*”

(*delete as appropriate)

So, make sure you pause and think it through.  After considering this worst-case scenario you may realise that:

  1. If you are smart about how you do things then you probably don’t need to lose your job, or
  2. That it would be worth the risk as you do not like your job anyway, or
  3. You are pretty confident you could find a new and better job

How to overcome fear: what to do if still feeling anxious 

Once you have thought through any worst-case scenarios, faced up to any fears and done your best to prepare then it is time to take action. As you press on towards your goal it could be that your fears are realised. If that happens and anxiety strikes, then remember BTD:

  1. Breathe
  2. Think
  3. Do

Here is a little more detail on each step.

Breathe

The first thing to do when feeling fearful is to pause and take some slow deep breaths. This is proven to be the most effective way of managing feelings of anxiety as it gives time to overcome the amygdala hijack whilst slow breathing reassures the brain, helping it out of the fight or flight response, as well as maintaining the oxygen needed for clear thinking. 

Breathing techniques can maximise your effectiveness at this stage and you can read more about different breathing techniques in The Best Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety

Think

Having settled down physiologically and neurologically you can now bring your pre-frontal cortex back into play. There are a few useful things you can do at this stage, such as the 3 Rs:

  1. Re-name your emotions. Labelling your feelings helps to deal with them rationally
  2. Reframe the situation. Every crisis brings opportunity. What positive things can you do in your new circumstances?
  3. Remember. What experience might help you? Recall other times when you have overcome problems. Think who could help and what they might do in similar circumstances

Do

Now take positive action by using these 3 Bs:

  1. Baby steps. Start small. What little step can you take to make things better? If you are still struggling with feelings of anxiety then concentrate on small, simple activities, things you know you can achieve. As with my example, this could be as simple as putting on your coat when it starts raining. 
  2. Building confidence with every success. For everything you achieve, log it as a success. This will help build your confidence as you work towards a positive outcome.
  3. Be encouraging. Encourage others and use positive affirmations in your self-talk. Tell yourself and others positive things to boost confidence. You have got this, you can manage it, there is a way through the situation. 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin


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