The Upside of Fear

There are some unexpected benefits when we use fear to our advantage
BY Jennifer Margulis TIMEFebruary 8, 2022 PRINT

Fear can be the thing that keeps us from living the life we want, especially in our fear-saturated world today. Fortunately, there are some great insights about fear that can help us get above its gravitational pull—like Frank did.

Just the idea of talking to a woman he was interested in scared Frank, a “roll-up-your-sleeves, fix-it sort of guy” whose wife had divorced him two years earlier. Frank, who was middle-aged, wanted to be in a loving relationship. In fact, he was hoping to get married again. But he didn’t know how to get over his fear. So he phoned a therapist he knew and trusted to help him work through the fear.

That therapist was Dr. Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist. She recounts Frank’s story in “The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self,” a 2004 book that’s as relevant today as it was when it first came out. At the time, Lerner had recently participated in a fear workshop that was led by a therapist named Cloé Madanes. Inspired by Madanes’s workshop, Lerner had an outside-the-box idea for Frank, if he were willing to try it.

Lerner explained to Frank that she believed his real problem wasn’t what he thought it was. The real issue, in Lerner’s assessment, was that Frank didn’t have enough experience being rejected. So Lerner gave him some homework: Actively seek out 75 rejections in one day.

Seeking Rejection?

Seventy-five rejections in one day? Why would anyone want to subject themselves to that much misery and humiliation? But Frank was the kind of person who appreciated a challenge. He was highly motivated to move on with his life after the divorce. And he told Lerner he was game to try.

This all happened before the #MeToo movement raised awareness about unwanted sexual attention and harassment, but Frank developed a non-threatening script that read something like: “My name is Frank. I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but would you be willing to have coffee with me?” With Lerner’s input, Frank also adopted a cautious and polite approach so he wouldn’t be seen as acting inappropriately.

The crazy idea worked. Frank’s goal was to get rejected, of course, not to get a date. But, much to his surprise, even though most of them said no, some of the women he approached said, sure, they would be glad to have a cup of coffee with him. So Frank’s first lesson was that it wasn’t as easy to get rejected as he had feared.

More notably, during the experiment, Frank’s extreme fear of being rejected wore off so quickly that halfway into the assignment he pulled out his cellphone and called a female friend from work whom he had been wanting to ask out on a date. His work colleague said “no.” It turned out she was already in a relationship with someone else. But, after trying to get so many rejections, adding one more rejection feather to his cap didn’t upset him. He also wasn’t sorry he had called her. Instead, he was inspired. Lerner had helped him flip the script and now he was able to see that last “failure” as a success.

We All Feel Afraid

Especially now, two years into worldwide concerns about COVID-19, every human on the planet can relate to feeling fear.

A new study by scientists at the University of Essex showed that COVID-19 concerns have caused a spike in anxiety and depression among pregnant women in the United Kingdom. Published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, the researchers found that 60 percent of the pregnant moms surveyed were experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

Other recent studies have similarly shown that Canadians are experiencing anxiety levels at the highest rates since March 2020, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s ninth survey of Canadians’ pandemic health and substance use. And other reports suggest that COVID fatigue has led Americans, like so many people around the world, to feel fearful, burned out, and stressed.

But even pre-pandemic, physicians and psychologists were seeing an increase in fear levels among their patients. A few years ago, Dr. Stefan Topolski, a medical doctor based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, told me he was seeing several patients a day who said they were suffering from fear.

“Anxiety affects every part of someone’s life,” Topolski said, explaining that mental fear can cause or exacerbate several physiological problems. High anxiety leads to elevated levels of stress hormones in the body, including cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones in turn can weaken the immune system, according to the American Psychological Association.

Topolski agreed: Fear “leads to a weakened immune system, which means white blood cells work slower and weaker, and the body can’t mount a fever the way it should. It also means increased fat placed around the waist, which is a risk for heart disease, and general weakening in ligaments and tendons.”

The Protective Nature of Fear

We know fear is bad for our health. At the same time, however, there’s no question that fear can protect us from bad outcomes and even save our lives. According to Lerner, fear is the mind’s way of protecting us from our own stupidity and keeping us safe. When my teenage son looked over the edge of a rock and into the water while on a camping trip with his friends, he felt too afraid to jump off. His fear, arguably, helped him make a life-saving decision. When his older sister didn’t feel the same fear and jumped into a different body of water without first making sure it was deep enough, she ended up with a huge gash in her leg that subsequently got infected. In that instance, her lack of fear could very well have killed her.

In small bursts, Topolski also agreed that fear can be helpful. The problem is when we are bombarded with anxious feelings and stress 24/7 in a way that compromises our health, something we have seen throughout the pandemic.

“It’s normal to have fear,” Topolski said. “But fear [should] occur for small moments—the fight-or-flight response—[and] within an hour or two, you should be back to your normal self.”

Take Charge of Your Fear

Fear, like any other emotion, is information. When we pay attention to our feelings of fear—and become interested in what they are trying to teach us—we can reap powerful benefits.

Frank’s bold approach to feeling fearful, according to Lerner, was that it enabled him to be “squarely in charge of his own symptom. Rather than being a passive victim of his greatest fear—rejection—he became actively engaged in making rejection happen,” she wrote.

Feeling fearful and working through it can help you improve your life. Some of the take-away lessons from Frank’s experience and from Lerner’s book include:

Actions Matter

We humans learn by doing. Sometimes our thoughts are more worrisome than our actual experiences. When we take the leap of faith and act—approaching someone we are hoping to be friends with, saying “yes” to a public speaking engagement even though the idea of speaking in public is so terrifying it gives us hives, trying a new activity like journaling or painting or a sport we’ve never played before—life becomes richer and more interesting. And even if we “fail” (whatever that means), we reap the benefit of having felt the fear but tried anyway.

Feelings Are OK

It’s OK to be nervous, shy, uncomfortable, or afraid. All feelings can teach us powerful lessons. While it may seem easier not to feel, we become better adjusted and more mature humans when we treat our feelings with curiosity, give ourselves some grace, and allow ourselves to feel. When we feel fear appropriately, we keep ourselves safe from physical harm.

But sometimes we feel fear for no reason: We become afraid of things that are not actually threatening. But this inappropriate fear can also be a teacher. Pay attention to what is going on at a deeper level. Perhaps someone is trying to manipulate us; a company is trying to sell us a product we don’t want or need; or we are afraid of being vulnerable because we don’t want to risk getting hurt.

When we tune in at a deeper level, we become psychologically healthier. We can end an unhealthy relationship, say “no thank you” to people who are trying to keep us afraid, or take a risk of rejection in order to reap the reward of being accepted.

When we feel fear inappropriately but we pay attention to what is actually going on at a deeper level, we become psychologically healthier and improve our lives immeasurably.

Invite Fear Into Your Life

Instead of shying away from it, be open to your fears. Invite them in and learn from them. Fear isn’t something to overcome or conquer, Lerner insisted. Instead, she advised her clients like Frank to pay attention to their fears and act in spite of them.

“If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions,” Lerner said. “Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.”

Motivation Matters

When you’re highly motivated to overcome a challenge, even if you aren’t sure how, you will find a way. Don’t let fear keep you from acting. Instead, use the fear as a motivator to make positive change. Even if that change is simply to find the help you need to figure out what is driving your fear, that is the right first step.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

If feeling fearful is causing you physical distress, use that information to improve your health. To learn relaxation techniques that you can implement throughout the day, take a meditation or a yoga class (or both). Increase your daily movement and activity levels. This can be as simple as getting up every 20 minutes from your desk if your job involves sitting and walking around your office, house, or apartment.

Dedicated daily exercise is also a highly effective relaxation technique—a great way to feel better if you find yourself overrun with anxiety. In fact, a study by Swedish researchers published in January in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that the anxiety levels of participants in a 12-week group exercise program were reduced as a result of both high-intensity and low-intensity workouts. Since humans thrive when we are social, group exercise can be especially beneficial for improving your mood and your fitness levels.

Be Grateful

When the world’s worries are weighing you down, experts suggest you count your blessings. “Something else that can help you climb out of fear and back into the light of purpose is gratitude,” said Rick Kirschner, a naturopathic physician based in Sandpoint, Idaho, and co-author of the book “Dealing With People You Can’t Stand.”

“Maybe counting your blessings is already something you do. It is for me, but sometimes I forget. Sometimes it’s not easy to notice those blessings,” Kirschner said. “In that case, you can be like the optimist. The pessimist says, ‘It can’t get worse!’ The optimist says, ‘Sure it can!’ Which means there’s something to be grateful for right now.”

Reading “The Dance of Fear,” a book full of wisdom and unconventional, sometimes surprising ideas, as well as watching documentary films about people who found courage in the face of fear, will also inspire you to better understand the upside to feeling afraid.

“In a country with so much wealth and food and shelter, it’s odd that we suffer from so much more anxiety than our ancestors,” Topolski told me. While the collective anxiety the world has been feeling has proved crippling for some, Lerner challenges readers in her epilogue to act with compassion even in the face of fear.

We “needn’t let anxiety and shame silence our authentic voices, or stop us from acting with clarity, compassion, and courage. In today’s world, no challenge is more important than that,” she wrote.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., an award-winning science journalist and book author, is a frequent contributor to the Epoch Times. A sought-after speaker, she has worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa; spoken out against child slavery on prime time television in Paris, France; and taught post-colonial literature to nontraditional college students in Atlanta. Sign up for her free weekly emails at JenniferMargulis.net.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
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