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Face Your Fears: One Writer on How Overcoming Their Fears Has Become a Personal Challenge

17 June 21 words: Amelia Flanagan
illustrations: Yasmin Bryan

Clowns. Public speaking. Tories. Everyone has a fear that can stop them in their tracks. And in extreme cases, fear can even severely limit what we’re able to do in life. But it doesn’t always have to be that way, as Amelia Flanagan explores...

Everyone is scared of something, right? If you said no, you’re lying. Your fear might be of the arachnophobia or claustrophobia levels of common, or it could be as unique as arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. Either way, we all know feelings and signs of fear: sweaty palms, dry mouth, tummy doing flips... you know the rest.

My big fear, among others, is wasps. I have developed a superhuman sense of hearing when it comes to the sound of buzzing. I can hear it from a one-mile radius, and can even tell the difference between the buzz of different insects. My general reaction is to put as much distance between myself and the wasp. One time, I bit into a fresh, warm jam doughnut when a wasp came to check it out, and I lobbed the rest of the doughnut halfway down the beach like a well-seasoned quarterback. On reflection, I had to ask myself why do I have such a strong fear of a tiny insect? More importantly, why did I sacrifice my perfectly good jam doughnut?

We can blame the amygdalae for that: a pair of almond-shaped masses in the brain that process our emotions and responses. Some refer to them as the ‘fear centres’ of our brain. The amygdalae process information and if we are in a dangerous situation, let's say we run into a tiger, then the amygdala will hit the panic button and our body knows what to do. Fight, flight or freeze. The issue with this is, how many times have you run into a tiger lately? Unless you are Joe Exotic I assume the answer is none. These fear responses are what have kept the human species alive for thousands of years, but today how often are we in real life-threatening danger? Yet, if you are anything like me, you probably feel the brain hit panic stations several times a week. 

After doing a small amount of research, I have come to understand that fear can be split into factual and fictional (or imagined) fear. Factual fear is that which we have mentioned – the life-threatening dangers such as predators, weapons and the like. These are ‘factual fears’ because in these situations it benefits us to be scared, we need our fight or flight system to help us make the best decisions to keep us alive. On the other hand, fictional fear is all of that overthinking that we do like panicking about an interview or a date. This is our amygdalae working overtime; in our overstimulated world and overstimulated brains, we constantly feel stress and fear. It is difficult for the brain to categorise what is life-threatening fear and what is imagined fear, so just to be safe it will put the body in fight or flight anyway. 

I bit into a fresh, warm jam doughnut when a wasp came to check it out, and I lobbed the rest of the doughnut halfway down the beach like a well-seasoned quarterback.

After coming to the conclusion that most of my fears are imagined, at the beginning of 2020, instead of making any resolutions, I decided that I would simply fight some fears. I decided to go ahead with plans that I had wanted to do but kept putting off such as solo travelling or starting new hobbies. Also, I wanted to tackle my social anxiety and chronic people-pleasing. Usually, I would rather chop my own arm off than have to mildly inconvenience somebody else, but this began having such an impact on my life and sense of self that something had to give. I’m a big believer in starting small, some might prefer to (literally) jump in at the deep end, but I don’t want to overwhelm myself. Instead, I take little steps as often as possible. Whenever I get that nagging feeling of being uncomfortable or out of control, I try to push myself to go ahead with the task, slowly training my brain that I am more than capable of doing scary things.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly we had new fears to be aware of. Having older parents, I had been painfully aware of their mortality from a young age, but suddenly even the sound of them clearing their throat could send me into a panic. I had convinced myself I would be an orphan before my next birthday – I will take this time to admit I have a flair for the dramatic.

With this current situation in mind, I feel that understanding where fear comes from and how it operates is more important now than ever. Some people are scared of more lockdowns and limitations, some are scared of life outside the home returning to how it was. Globally, we are out of control of many parts of our lives and that is difficult for most of us. Therefore, I think it is useful here to try and remember those factual vs fictional sides of fear, as it can help rationalise our thoughts and gain a little perspective. I had to remind myself daily that my parents were, at that moment, fit and healthy, even if mentally I was grieving beside their ICU bed. It was exhausting but proved to me that in life I was always fearing the worst outcome and that my brain probably did need some love and attention. It is time to start getting my amygdalae to serve me, rather than the other way round. 

Finally, I want to mention the importance of getting help if you need it. Mindfulness and fear fighting are great exercises to push yourself and gain confidence, but ultimately it will not cure a medical issue by itself. Speak to a trusted person, or use the resources to find professional help – I did and I am so grateful for it. No more doughnuts shall be wasted from this moment forward.

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