Why this matters
We can experience fear when faced with actual or perceived physical or psychological threats. For some people, fear can feel like extreme nervousness, anxiety or an intense feeling of “being stressed.” Fear tends to have a strong physiological component, as it prepares our body for an adaptive, “fight, flight or freeze” response. Common physical symptoms can include:
- Muscle tension (especially in neck and shoulder areas)
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Clammy skin
- Pale or flushed face
Fearful thoughts tend to focus on predictions of harm, danger or other negative outcomes for us or those we care about. Responsibilities and duties are a common motivator of fear. For example, we may be fearful or nervous about:
- Failing to meet a deadline
- About our job security or grades at school
- About being publicly embarrassed in front of our peers
This can be especially difficult for people who must monitor their performance as well as that of others, like employees, students, teammates and volunteers.
Fear can affect our concentration. Then, we become preoccupied by a potential threat rather than focusing on our immediate responsibilities. Fear can also lead us to become hyper alert to cues in our environment that feed or reinforce our fearful thoughts. For example, managers might notice signs of non-compliance among employees when we believe they don’t respect our authority.
A natural and common reaction to fear is a strong desire to avoid or escape the situation causing our fear. This can lead us to withdraw from our responsibilities. Typically, we feel a temporary sense of relief when we avoid a fearful situation. For example, when you postpone a presentation because you feel nervous speaking in front of people, you’ll likely feel relieved by the postponement and temporarily safe from the possibility of public embarrassment. However, by avoiding the situation you’re reinforcing your fear that doing the presentation is dangerous in some way. Through a habit of avoidance – like delegating unpleasant tasks, pushing back deadlines or calling in sick – your fear of speaking in public likely gets more intense. Ironically, avoiding things that make us fearful leads to an increase in fear in the long run. Therefore, it’s desirable to learn to identify avoidance behaviours and try to curb them.
Explore and reflect
A coach is about to train the team on a play she’s not highly comfortable with herself.
“I’ll never pull it off. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’m going to be completely humiliated.” This is an example of catastrophic thinking.
Postpone the training date.
Tell the team you’re “too busy” to train right now.
Ask another coach to lead the training.
“The best thing I can do is let others know I’m not an expert at this. I’ll do my best and get someone with more skills in this area to teach me or the team if I’m not confident I can give the best demonstration.”
A manager needs to fire a employee who they know has financial hardships.
“I’m going to put him on the streets. I’ll be seen as a jerk by everyone at the office.” This is an example of mind reading.
Delay meeting with the employee. Try to think of alternatives to firing them.
“This is one of the hardest parts of my job. It will never feel easy, but it has to be done to benefit our entire team. I’ll give them information about accessing employment insurance and community supports.”
A young writer who’s been published has just joined a poetry group and will be critiquing the work of people who’ve been writing for much longer than them.
“They’re going to think I’m just some kid who got lucky.” This statement shows they’re underestimating their abilities. They may have a mental image of life as a small person with others glaring down on them.
“They’ll find out I’m actually not a real poet and they won’t take me seriously.” This is an example of irrational assumptions.
Try to be extra friendly to gain approval. Try to dress and act like an older person.
“I’m young and it may be more challenging for me because not everyone will accept me. Still, there’s a reason I was invited to join this group and I must trust that. I can’t control other people’s judgments.”
A job applicant needs to make a presentation during their interview. This has never been their strength.
They have a mental image of being laughed at during school presentations, thinking: “I’m going to completely bomb the presentation. They’re going to think I sound stupid and I’ll lose any chance at getting this job.”
Wait until the last minute to begin working on the presentation.
“As hard as the presentations always feel, I get through them… they’re definitely not my strength, but they’re never as awful as I think they’ll be.”
A community theatre director receives an email from the board of directors indicating a cast member has made a complaint against them and there will be an inquiry.
“I must have said or done something wrong without realizing it. I’m going to be fired. My reputation’s going down the drain.”
- Stop doing the tasks at hand.
- Think about past actions that might have caused the complaint.
- Hide backstage.
“I have to trust I’ve handled things to the best of my ability. I need to get all the information before I react.”
A man has misplaced his spouse’s confidential health information, which he was to submit for benefits coverage.
“That’s so irresponsible of me. I’m losing my mind. I don’t know who has seen it. She’ll lose trust in me.”
Hide the fact that the information’s lost.
“I’m not perfect. I’ll do my best to find the information before I go home and apologize if I need to. My wife knows this is out of character for me.”
These examples show fear can range from slight nervousness to sheer panic. Sometimes, fear propels us to act in constructive ways. For example, it motivates us to spend extra time preparing for a presentation. Or, fear moves us to prioritize certain things like looking for an important file.
At other times, fear prevents us from doing what we need to do. We begin to avoid things because we feel we can’t face them. Other times, we become so focused on the source of fear we neglect everything else. We saw this in the example of the coach who dwells on their perceived lack of ability instead of following through with scheduled training.
Recognizing fear and helpful and unhelpful ways of reacting allows us to make better decisions when we’re in emotionally intense situations.