Fear is an unmistakable sensation. Muscles tense. Breath and heartbeat speed up. Hands tremble.
Sometimes, this frightening feeling serves to keep us safe. Fear is an instinctive warning that trouble is near. It prevents us from wandering into traffic, walking too close to the edge of a cliff, or carelessly approaching a ferocious animal. Fear prevents us from hurting ourselves.
But we also confront another type of fear with a very different agenda. It doesn’t alert us to threats of death or bodily harm, but its influence can last for years. These are the fears of rejection, humiliation, ridicule, and the unknown.
These kinds of fears may not have the life-or-death consequences of protective fear, but experts say they trigger the same tense and terror-filled feelings because they stem from the same primal fight-or-flight instinct of the brain.
However, instead of keeping us safe, these fears only keep us stuck.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly calls this type of fear destructive, because it taunts us mercilessly with its cruel message.
“So many people feel anxious, depressed, trapped, immobilized, and they don’t know how to get out of that,” Manly said. “So they stay in a bad relationship, in a work situation that doesn’t suit them, or they still hear things from childhood in their heads that tell them they’re broken, bad, or not good enough.”
According to Manly, a big reason that people stay stuck is because they never consider that their fear is the force holding them there. In fact, people usually do everything they can to ignore such fears, because it’s the last thing they want to hear.
“We live in a very quick fix society, so we reach out for something outside of us,” she said. “Whether it’s a medication, alcohol, shopping too much, or thoughtless sex—anything of an addictive nature is a way to temporarily quiet that voice, because it really doesn’t feel good to us.”
But what if by listening closely to our destructive fear, we could claim our freedom from it? In her new book, “Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend,” Manly shows that by looking behind this most frightening of emotions, we find a better version of ourselves.
Destructive fears have always been a part of the human condition, but we may suffer from more today than ever before. Modern culture has conveniently diminished many of the survival fears our ancestors suffered, but it has replaced them with chronic anxiety. Divisive politics, the social pressures of social media, impossible beauty standards, 24-hour news coverage, and all the other soul-crushing facets of modern life give us more to fret about. And constant worry plagues a large segment of the population at ever younger ages.
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting over 40 million adults. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated one-third of adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Researchers have recently found anxiety is increasing in epidemic proportions. Compared to the results of a similar poll a year earlier, nearly 40 percent of adults in the United States are more anxious today than they were a year ago.
We’re generally not interested in examining this anxiety, only in shutting it up. We’ve been told that chronic anxiety is primarily the result of unbalanced brain chemistry, so that’s primarily how we treat it. Today, an estimated one in six Americans take a psychotropic drug. One study from the American Journal of Psychiatry found that over the course of the 2000s, the use of psychotherapy on its own and in conjunction with medication has dropped. Meanwhile, medication-only visits increased, with more than 57 percent of patients receiving medication without psychotherapy.
“According to those statistics, the majority of people are not getting the help they need to heal the underlying issue of what’s causing the anxiety, depression, stress,” Manly said. “They’re just being given a medication to numb it out and help it not be as irritating or debilitating.”
Manly is not against medication, but she says drugs alone will never be able to resolve the root of our problems. Take, for example, one of her clients, who she calls Amanda, for privacy’s sake.
Amanda is a young woman who suffers from chronic anxiety and severe panic attacks. Although she’s been on anti-anxiety medication for years, Amanda came to see Manly because her panic attacks started to grow more severe.
When Amanda set out to study her destructive fear, she noticed that she worried constantly about losing weight and felt that people were always judging her for being too fat. She was so sensitive about it that a friend might say something totally unrelated to food or weight and inadvertently set her off. Even certain television shows or commercials could trigger her sense of self-loathing and inferiority.
As Amanda began to look closer at her fear, one of her first memories came back. She was about five years old, eating chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. Her father came in, took the plate, threw the cookies in the trash, and said, “You’re getting fat. You don’t want to be fat like your mother. Men don’t like fat women. Get exercise and watch what you eat, or no boy will ever like you.”
From that moment on, Amanda became increasingly fearful of her father and eating. She began to see disapproval wherever she looked. However, she discovered that the more she confronted that negative voice, the better she could turn her mind toward healthy thoughts and actions. Through this challenge, her true voice was able to emerge. She soon became able to eat without beating herself up about it.
“I am slowly learning to feel more in control,” Amanda reported. “Fear and anxiety aren’t my masters any longer—my awareness is.”
Learning to Spot Fear
Joseph Campbell, the lecturer and author who famously illustrated the mysteries of the human psyche with ancient myths and enduring archetypes, suggested that by exploring our greatest fears, we uncover our greatest gifts.
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life,” Campbell stated. “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
Manly adds a few more details to this archetype, giving fear two faces: one destructive and another constructive.
Destructive fear is like a bully in the schoolyard. He trips you, taunts you, and generally makes your life miserable for his own amusement. However, the more you study and confront this bully, the more he lets you in on his constructive side.
According to Manly, you can identify the constructive face of fear by its tone: soft, gentle, and from the heart.
“It will tell you things like, ‘Even though your dad told you that you were destined to be a failure, even though society gives you messages that you’re not good enough unless you look a certain way, that’s really not true,” Manly said.
It’s a challenge to see our way to this constructive inner voice, because it hides behind the places we least want to look—and it only reveals itself through quiet reflection.
In our fast-paced, externally focused society, it becomes even more difficult to hone in on this voice. You won’t find constructive fear when you are agitated and upset.
“When we want to find constructive fear, we have to slow ourselves down. We have to calm not just the mind, but also the body,” Manly said. “That’s why when someone’s either walking around in a park, doing yoga, meditation, or breathing, they are more connected because they’re bringing the parasympathetic nervous system onboard.”
For those predominantly logic-minded individuals, it’s tempting to view this as a completely intellectual exercise. But fear has a very specific feeling associated with it. If we ignore this feeling, we’ll never find the treasure. It’s that feeling of tension and dread that tells you exactly where to dig. That’s why Manly says it’s so important to include your body in the fear exploration process.
“If we look at our belly—the force of our gut instinct—and then we look at our brain, we see that with all the information traveling from our gut to brain, only 10 percent of that is brain to gut; 90 percent of the traffic is gut to brain. That’s our enteric nervous system at work,” Manly said. “How brilliant our ancestors were who came up with phrases like ‘gut instinct.’ They knew what they were talking about, before we had the science to understand that.”
Faith and Fear
Advertising and propaganda have a notorious history for stoking destructive fears, drumming into us that we need to buy what they’re selling. But some of the biggest fears we carry emerge during a trauma. A high-stress situation we confront as children, or during another particularly vulnerable time in our lives, can leave a mark on our mind and body. As a result, we often develop a set of dysfunctional habits and beliefs designed to avoid a repeat of the trauma.
In a world of quick fixes, the process of unearthing a constructive inner voice—and untangling the habits and traumas that kept it hidden—can be frustratingly slow. But Manly believes small, slow changes are the best path toward a sustainable future.
“It’s not an overnight thing. And it’s best that it’s not an overnight thing,” she said. “That’s why those 8-week weight loss programs aren’t effective. Because we don’t do that underlying groundwork to support the change.”
The process also takes courage, persistence, and faith. When the life we want doesn’t materialize as fast as we wish, it’s easy to lose hope, and nothing tests our faith more than our fears.
That’s why Manly recommends that you ask for help during the process. Look to a group, a family member, a therapist, a close friend, or anyone you can really trust to reassure you that change is happening even when everything still seems the same.
She says that as long as you’re doing your best, you can trust that you are heading in the right direction.
“No matter how far we come in our journey, the same things come up,” Manly said. “The idea is to learn more to bring yourself back and say: ‘Be patient. You’ve done your work. The rest is in the divine’s hands. Just have faith. It will go where it needs to go.”’