Everyone has fears. For many, the feeling of fear is a minor hurdle, an inconvenient moment or two that passes as quickly as it arrives. For others though, fear can be paralyzing, causing people to retreat into themselves, hiding away from the world. In extreme cases, even leaving the house is too difficult.
The saddest thing is that it doesn’t need to be this way. All fears are learnt behaviours, developed over the course of life. When we are born, we are filled with an innocent wonder. As we grow and encounter the different situations and experiences that life presents, we absorb coping strategies from the people around us. We watch how they confront problems and what we see defines how we adapt to the world around us. When what we see is panic, we assume that to be the normal reaction. If you are taught that a spider is something scary, then you become scared of spiders. Left unchecked, this can develop into full-blown arachnophobia.
One of the biggest difficulties with mental illness is the amplification of fear. Rather than the world being full of wonder, it becomes a haven of horrors. You don’t want to go to the supermarket because you feel people are judging you. You struggle to go to work because you believe you aren’t good enough at your job, and your colleagues would be better off if you weren’t there. You become so scared of what people think of you that you isolate yourself, withdrawing from social contact as a means of self-preservation.
I speak from bitter experience. I remember the days I would shuffle around town, hood pulled up, hat down low and headphones turned up to maximum volume, just so that I didn’t have to interact with people. I may have been out in the world, but I wasn’t a part of it. I recall the time that I woke up and the decorator was downstairs, and I pulled the quilt over my head and hid in my bed until they left. I’ve fled from work on several occasions due to the overwhelming nature of panic attacks. I know about fear, because I’ve lived it.
This last two months, I have learnt that fear can be beaten, and replaced with confidence. The beauty of it is that the solution is remarkably simple. All you need to do is think of what it is you are scared of, acknowledge that fear … and then do it anyway. It doesn’t matter what it is you are scared of, if you visualise the fear in its most extreme form, you make it so much harder to overcome. You need to break it down, bit by bit. If having a conversation with a stranger scares you, then just focus on saying “Hello” to them. Scared of leaving the house? Accept the fear, and then open the front door. All you have to do is take one step, one tiny step. Maybe on the first occasion that one step is all you can manage, maybe you go no further and you go back inside. But when you have taken that step, you know that next time you can take the step again. Only then you take one more step, maybe two. Maybe you manage to go for a five minute walk, who knows?
Two months ago, I was in a very dark place. I didn’t think I had the strength to go on, and the fear of the future nearly dragged me under. I was arguably as low as I’ve ever been. Hitting rock-bottom, I looked at myself in the mirror, thought “I can’t possibly get lower, so fuck it, what have I got to lose?” and decided to take a chance. I went on holiday, and I made a vow to myself that if something scared me, rather than shying away from it I went for it. I talked to people I would never have had the confidence to speak to; I took part in activities I would normally have been too embarrassed to. I sat topless around the pool, despite feeling insecure about my beer belly. Whenever I felt nervous about something, I made myself do it. Sometimes I needed a bit of Dutch courage, but I did it, and I had the best two weeks of my life.
Fear doesn’t have to destroy your life. You have the power within yourself to overcome anything you are scared of. Depression, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses make it more difficult, but it is not impossible. I know you may be thinking that you don’t have the strength to overcome your fears, but listen to me: you do. You may think you are weak, but you are still here, you are still fighting and still living. Sometimes, just making it to the end of the day is the bravest thing anybody can do, and you have done that. Many haven’t been able to, but you have. That, in itself, proves you are stronger than you realise.
We all have our comfort zones. It is only when we challenge ourselves, when we step outside of our self-imposed chains, that we can begin to experience the truly magical aspects of life. Next time your instinctive reaction urges you to say no, say yes instead. I’ve started to, and for the first time in my life I feel love and respect for myself. It’s a bit of a strange feeling, but it’s one I never want to lose.
Fear is only as powerful as we allow it to be. Take that first step to eradicating it, and say yes. Do what scares you, because when you do, it isn’t scary anymore. Throw off the shackles and start living instead of just existing, because it is a truly invigorating feeling, and one that you deserve to experience.
Just don’t ask me to go anywhere near those damn spiders!