Our lives are filled with fear.
Some of our fears are physical. We’re afraid of spiders, snakes, and dogs. We’re afraid of heights, crowds, and enclosed spaces. We’re scared to jump out of airplanes (or even to fly in them), to go swimming, or to touch a drop of blood. We’re afraid we might be mugged.
Some of our fears are psychological. We’re afraid of failure, darkness, and being alone. We’re afraid of the future. We’re afraid of death. We’re frightened of being judged by others, and scared to ask someone for a date.
Some fears are rational. I, for instance, am scared of bears. This is a healthy, rational fear. Bears will eat you. When you ignore your fear of bears, you can up like Timothy Treadwell, the man profiled in the film Grizzly Man. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone.)
If you’re walking alone at night and a thug demands your money while holding a gun to your head, you’ll feel afraid, and rightly so. This is a natural, rational fear.
These healthy fears have a biological basis, and are the product of millions of years of evolution. A fear of snakes (or bears) has helped the human race to survive. A fear of heights keeps you from spending too much time in places where you might fall to your death.
But sometimes rational fears can become irrational or excessive. It’s one thing to be nervous while walking on the edge of a crumbling cliff high above a river; it’s another to suffer a panic attack on the seventeenth floor of a well-constructed, glass-enclosed office building. (Or to worry about a bear attack in Paris!)
Still other fears are mostly (or completely) irrational, and yet they’re very common. An estimated 75% of all people experience some degree of anxiety when speaking in public. I’m one of them. I’m aware of no biological basis to be afraid of giving a speech in front of 500 strangers, yet doing so would make most of us sweat and stammer.
Healthy, rational fears keep you alert and alive. Irrational fears and anxieties prevent you from enjoying everything life has to offer.
In the coming weeks, we’ll talk about how to overcome fear, how to channel those negative feelings into something positive.