Overcoming Fear (Part 2): Thinking About Thinking

Alright, last time I told you about my new year’s resolution to make “no decision based on fear”, and how I basically invented all of psychology and condensed it down into one handy saying. Now I’m going to try and explain how I do it; how I overcome fear and make the right decision in the face of a hard-wired emotional response telling me to play it safe.

Like I said in the last post, this is definitely a work in progress. I don’t succeed at this anything like 100% of the time. But hopefully there’ll be a few ideas in here that’ll make sense to you and help you with keeping unhelpful emotions out of decision making processes.

But first, a word of caution.

Fear Isn’t Always Bad

Fear can be a good thing. In a whole lot of situations being afraid is totally the correct response. And a healthy awareness of risk and danger are totally good. On top of that, trying to ignore your fear and suppress your natural emotions is a really, really bad idea. In fact it’s a great recipe for mental illness. So much of therapy and counselling is directed towards helping people accept that it’s ok to feel negative emotions like fear and sadness. So to be clear I am not suggesting that you should ignore or shut out your fear.

 

t-rex-in-jurassic-park
Above: a situation in which feeling fear is appropriate

 

Rather, you should treat fear like it’s a Facebook friend you don’t really know who has just invited you to play Candy Crush Saga-momentarily acknowledge it, shrug it off, and get on with your life. Notice that fear is there in the same way you might notice that you’re almost out of Frosties. Appreciate it in the same way you appreciate moss. Make a note of it and carry on regardless. You can’t help feeling afraid… but you can help how you react to it when it appears.

Identifying Your Thoughts

Spotting thoughts as they fly through your head isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Thoughts just sort of…happen, don’t they? Millions of different images and memories and weird trains of logic fly through our minds all the time without us having any real control over them. So how can you even notice the thoughts you have when making big decisions, let alone try to separate them out?

There are actually a bunch of techniques that can help you do just that. It’s called thought defusion, and it’s one of the key ideas in Mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that’s been around for hundreds of years and while it has become a bit of a buzzword recently that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some great science behind it.

The basic aim of mindfulness it to help you become more aware of, and accepting of, your thoughts and emotions. You do this by relaxing yourself and simply practicing noticing things. There’s so much information in the world around us. Our senses only take in a fraction of it, and our brain properly processes even less. So mindfulness is about slowing down and just… observing things around you, without interpreting or judging them.

leaves-on-a-stream

Thought defusion applies this to your own thoughts and emotions. The idea is to practice objectively noticing your thoughts and then learning to let them go, instead of getting hung up on them. It’s great for dealing with anxiety because one of the hallmarks of worry is the tendency to get caught up in the same little anxious thoughts over and over again, imagining catastrophic chains of events leading on from your decisions. Though defusion helps you spot this happening and then gives you the mental acuity to tell your thoughts to sod right off. That’s the technical term.

There’s no magic formula for this- it’s just a skill that you can learn. Google thought defusion exercises. I use a “rivers on a stream” exercise to visualise thoughts floating away down a river but go with whatever make sense to you. It all sounds a bit wishy-washy but it really works- all the scientific literature supports mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, process information more positively, recover from emotional distress more quickly and feel negative emotions less intensely.

It’s more than just hippie rubbish and posh colouring books. Seriously.

Ok so now that we’re identifying our thoughts more easily, and letting go of the ones that aren’t helping us, what’s next?

Telling STOOPID WEAK-ASS FEARS to shut up

The psychological literature calls this “challenging faulty perceptions” but I prefer “telling STOOPID WEAK-ASS FEARS to shut up”. This is where you learn to notice when the things you are thinking are in fact STOOPID.  There are a few ways to go about this:

  1. Think through the real situation- if you’re worried about future consequences of some action, play it out in your head, trying to figure out what will actually Often it’s big, hazy concepts hanging over us that cause us to feel afraid; a list of little steps is far less intimidating. So fill in all the mental dark areas in your picture of the future and give fear nowhere to hide.
  2. Work out what you’re afraid of- try to pinpoint what exactly you are afraid of about any given situation. Specific fears can be looked at and evaluated. If all you come up with is a vague sense of unease about nothing in particular then you, friend, are dealing with a STOOPID-WEAK ASS FEAR that needs to shut up.
  3. De-Catastrophize- Instead of telling yourself that bad things won’t happen, you can tell yourself that the bad thing won’t be all that bad. You’re afraid of applying for that job because you might get rejected? Is that really such a catastrophe? Or will you carry on with your life just fine? Some thinking about things properly reveals that they aren’t as bad as you’re expecting.
  4. Consider the evidence- if your STOOPID WEAK-ASS worries and predictions aren’t budging when you tell them to shut up, think back through all your experiences and see if there’s any support for them. Worried that if you speak up and share your honest emotions people will laugh at you and call you an idiot? Can you pinpoint a time when that has ever actually happened to you? If no- why do you think it will now? If yes- GET SOME NEW FRIENDS!

Some more STOOPID-ASS FEARS

Finally for today let’s look at a couple of specific types of STOOPID-ASS FEAR that you need to be especially vigorous about telling to shut up.

First is being afraid of totally the wrong things. Quite often my fear of doing things would be based on the fact they’d cause some short-term discomfort. I’d be afraid of going for a job interview not because it was deciding a potentially big part of my life, but just because I’d have to go to a place and be asked a bunch of arduous questions by some people. I was letting short-term stress and discomfort get in the way of potential long-term gains, and that’s really dumb. So if fear of doing something is based solely on the risk of pain or distress in the next few hours or days but the consequences could affect you for years to come, you need to totally discount it. Send it packing. Tie it in a bag, throw some hedgehogs/grenades into the bag and throw the bag into a bigger bag made of tiny little ninjas who won’t let it out no matter what. Then throw the ninja bag into the sea. Don’t worry about the ninjas- they have breathing apparatus in their masks.

 

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Scary Stuff

 

FEAR OF FEAR

The other STOOPID-ASS- FEAR I really dislike, which I’ll illustrate with a fairly recent example, is fear of fear. Meta-fear, if you will. Seriously, how many times do you find yourself being afraid of something…just because it’s scary? Not because there’s anything intrinsically frightening or dangerous about it. You’re afraid of it because you’re worried that you’ll be nervous. What’s the point in that?! Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to just… not be afraid?

If only it were that easy. But if you recognise that the only thing you are afraid of is being afraid, then at the very least it tells you that you don’t actually have any good reason to be fearful.

One example would be last year when I was rather unexpectedly offered the opportunity to interview one of the guys from Leprous, my all time favourite metal band, at a gig in Manchester. I’d never interviewed anyone before so was super excited but also kinda petrified. Leprous are in no way a famous band but for me this was literally a chance to meet and gain wisdom from one of my musical idols. For a normal person it’d be like meeting… I dunno, Justin Bieber. That’s the only time those two musical acts will ever be compared.

It was just such a new and momentous experience that I was pretty nervous and wound up about it for a long time beforehand. But I could see that, when I tried to figure out what I was actually afraid of, there wasn’t anything- I was just afraid of it because it was new and big and scary. Knowing this didn’t make the fear any less but it made it way easier to ignore. So I went for it, despite the nerves, and spent a lovely twenty minutes chatting about guitar tunings, cow foetuses and pizza toppings with the guitarist who wrote at least six of my top ten all-time favourite songs, and then got to see him and the band rock the house.

 

interview-leprous-by-liz-ewbank2-1024x683
I also based my current hairstyle on his (although mine isn’t as long yet). Decided against telling him that in the interview.

 

The point is I had learned to distinguish genuine fears like “this man is known for murdering interviewers and smearing their blood over his face before going on stage” from STOOPID WEAK-ASS FEARS like “it’s scary because… because it’s so scary!” If I had just stopped at “I am afraid” I would have missed out on a really cool opportunity. So learning to take a second look at your fears and get your thoughts in line is well worth your time.

To Be Continued…Again

I’ve still got loads more to cover so I think we’ll break there for today. Might do some other posts before I get to part 3 but I hope y’all are finding this useful. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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