Not "never fear" but want some limits
January 7, 2022 10:35 AM   Subscribe

How do you keep fear at bay in your life?

I know this seems overly broad but afraid narrowing it might limit the responses. I've seen a lot of AskMes lately that had a wide range of helpful life advice and could use help with this one. I put this under "Health and Fitness" because I believe it's at least in part a mental health question.
posted by tiny frying pan to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Fear can be a helpful response -- as my therapist says, "if you assume that rustling in the bushes is a bear and move away from it, you're going to avoid the chance that you may get mauled by a bear." Of course, that comes with a cost: if the rustling in the bushes is a cute puppy, you're also going to miss playing with a cute puppy. So there's a process to evaluate how reasonable fears are, and modulate your response based on that -- do you live in a region with bears? Is there often a cute puppy around? Apologies if that's a twee metaphor, but hey. This is a place where cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches may be useful -- you can't necessarily control your feelings (including fear), but you can maybe moreso control your thoughts, and your thoughts and feelings are related. If you think about why you're feeling fear and try to evaluate if that is a reasonable fear or not ("What's the worst that could hapen?") you may be able to push back.

Of course, I say that as someone who is living deep in let's-avoid-getting-sick-with-COVID world, which a lot of people might describe as an irrational fear (and I in turn would describe those people as irrational, so, it's possible for this stuff to be highly individual). I'm also totally fine flying sailplanes and light airplanes, which a lot of people would describe as frightening, so, I'm not sure how to generalize all this.
posted by Alterscape at 11:14 AM on January 7, 2022 [8 favorites]

I think it's a really complicated question, and it's okay to not have a ready answer.

Fear is complex, because it keeps you alive AND it limits your life.

It's a reasonable reaction, that also pushes people to behave unreasonably.

It's not something you can live without or choose not to experience. Humanity isn't a cafeteria where you pick and choose the different aspects of being human.

But you can become more cognizant of your fears, and you can ask yourself if you're being realistic.

I think of fear in terms of sharks, undertows, and sunburns.

Shark attacks get a lot of attention, and they're gruesome, but they are very rare and I'm not sure if they can be prevented. Drowning in an undertow is more common, but doesn't get as much fuss. You can mitigate your risk. And the most common result from a day at the beach is a sunburn, and that's an unpleasantness I can very easily prevent with sunblock and a hat.

When I'm afraid, I ask if it's a shark attack, undertow, or sunburn. Then I consider whether the "day at the beach" is worth the risks.
posted by champers at 11:35 AM on January 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I spend a lot of time comparing my circumstances to those of my forebears just for a reality check on what kind of freedom from fear I’m entitled to. No matter what the fear (Disease? Poverty? Lonely old age? Violent crime?), I’m more insulated from it than they were. We tend to think we should be free from misery and it’s outrageous when we’re not. But we’re nothing special.

For some things it helps to learn more about the thing you’re afraid of. I watched Time of Death, a documentary about the process of dying, and I am now much less afraid of it. Experience does the same thing for you—the more shit you survive, the less you’re afraid of other shit. At least that’s true for me.
posted by HotToddy at 11:36 AM on January 7, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I guess it really depends on whether you mean irrational fears or rational ones, and whether you mean fear-fear or anxiety, and what counts as "at bay," does it mean "never feeling it" or "never letting it control your actions" or "not letting it overly control your actions."

I keep rational fears "at bay," meaning, manageable enough that they do not dictate all my actions, through reasonable education and preparation. For example, I am desperately afraid of house fires, so I keep my smoke detectors up to date and am extremely cautious about open flames, electrical safety, and heat sources. Depending upon the circumstances (e.g., right now, when I live in a large building with shitty electricity), I might also do slightly-less reasonable things, like keep my essentials next to the door at night.

I keep irrational fears (spiders, for example) at bay through exposure and therapy. I'll probably always have a small fear response to spiders, but it doesn't cause me to have a panic attack or make me uncomfortable to be in the same room, etc., the way it used to.

As a small child I had a LOT of irrational phobias, which I kept at bay by avoiding the sources at all costs. This is probably not super practical or healthy but even so, I can probably make it through the rest of my life without watching The Blob, so I probably will.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:37 AM on January 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

i think it depends on what type of fear you're talking about. fear of death? fear of oversleeping? do you have panic/anxiety issues? fear of loss of control? fear of falling? all of those things require different interventions.

fear of oversleeping can be mitigated by taking steps to help yourself get up in the morning, like setting multiple alarms, or an automatic coffee pot or something. once those steps are in place, your fear should be lessened or maybe even gone.

fear of falling can also be mitigated, if for instance you're afraid of falling on the ice or down the stairs.

fear of death i have no answer for.

"acceptance" is also a strategy that may or may not help you depending on your fear. i found it helpful for some of my issues but not all.

there's also the "be afraid but do it anyway" solution. i had to use this a LOT when i was agoraphobic. like, it fucking terrified me to go to target for instance. but i HAD to do it because we needed fucking groceries and so i was just miserable and maybe had a crying fit or panic attack, but i got it done.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:39 AM on January 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't let your brain be the boss of your Mind. It doesn't aways know what's right. Your brain's job is to think and assess situations in life. It loves to solve problems. If it doesn't have any immediate problems it will create new ones to solve, and in this way it can be very irrational and fear things that aren't really a danger, in addition to dwelling and obsessing on useless things.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:44 AM on January 7, 2022 [7 favorites]

A book called The Gift of Fear used to be a common recommendation in AskMes back when I joined, and its premise is that fear is more important than people tend to think. The author is a personal security consultant, the one Jeff Bezos used when he got extorted by the National Enquirer or whoever that was, and is a very easy read (there is also an audiobook). It may help you separate the rational fears from the less-helpful ones, or at least give you some language with which to think about them.
posted by rhizome at 11:47 AM on January 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Nah, no Gift of Fear, unless you're looking for a book about very specific types of usually gendered threats (stalking, sexual violence, etc.) and not generalized fear or anxiety. Put another way, if you're worrying about tiger maulings or COVID risk or the eventual heat decay of the universe, that one isn't going to help you and will probably leave you with more worries.
posted by kingdead at 12:25 PM on January 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

A lot of advice around fear is about trying to stay realistic about the probability of The Bad Thing happening, and keep reactions in line with that.

This method, which is maybe "productive pessimism" combined with faith in one's own resilience, doesn't work as well for stuff that's life-threatening or irrevocably and catastrophically harmful, but for things like social anxiety, fear of abandonment, fear of catastrophic but non-fatal things, my most helpful line to myself is: the bad thing may happen but in time I'll Get Over It.

I'm afraid of getting left by my partner? Okay, if it happens, I'll feel heartbroken for a while, and then I'll get over it.

Worried that a presentation at work will go badly? Okay, so I'll feel embarrassed, and have to do something else to make up for it, but I'll get over it.

Lose my job, wind up in poverty, have to rely on the charity of friends and family? Wow that will hurt. But I'll write a book about my fall from grace and eventually find a new way to be useful to the world and I will get over it.

I am not saying that people should just "get over" their traumas and fears. I'm more saying that I like to cultivate the idea of myself as someone who can face whatever comes with courage. It helps for me to remember past things that felt like the end of the world: breakups, mistakes at work, social humiliations — and say, wow, I hardly ever think about that man/that job/that friend anymore. Over it.
posted by beatrice rex at 12:31 PM on January 7, 2022 [13 favorites]

This is not meant flippantly: I keep fear at bay in part by treating my clinical anxiety with medication.
posted by librarina at 12:40 PM on January 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

Somebody has to do it:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Fear like Pain is a signal informing you of something but once you know and acknowledge that information it doesn't serve much purpose. Rustling in bushes brings fear, ok fear has done it's job. Ow! that hurts, ok pain has done it's job. You are informed of something now, the signal can be turned down. You can still tell whether there's more reason for fear or more reason for pain but that initial twinge "danger be aware" has happened so you dial it down with a bit of "yes, yes, I know, I felt you".

The rustle in the bush being a bear but turning out to be a puppy is the fun part of a LSD tripping outing. Finding a stick that looks like a snake but is a stick is one thing, it's better if it turns out to really be a harmless snake.

It's a matter if innate perceptions that are mostly evolutionary wise good things that sometimes can get triggered falsely but it's best to be safe. But it's also better to not let that informative signal take over your mind.

There's a theory of humor in there that relates to realizing your mind has taken something as truth and found out that it's wrong. In the evolutionary sense that's actually a bad thing that your brain got things wrong. Humor is your brain re-jiggering things to get it back on the right track for next time. We tend to do this for the fun of it in safe environments where the self against the world isn't a major concern because your among friends and such. Fear and Pain are like that at least in initial presentation.

Turn them down to give your mind a chance to react on the informative maybe signal. Their job is done one you notice them and just keep a bit of an eye on them.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:32 PM on January 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is not meant flippantly: I keep fear at bay in part by treating my clinical anxiety with medication.

I live with generalized anxiety and this is part of my daily routine. At the beginning of the pandemic I had a few really bad weeks of OMG and then I kind of worked it out in a way that worked for me. For me that was "I've had a very good life and while I would prefer not to die, if it happens I am not full of regret. Can we think about lunch now?" and that was helpful for me. Obviously what works for different people is different but here are my things. And I should note my fear isn't "of COVID" it's just generalized which means it's free-floating and attaches to the most bullshitty things and makes them wretched. Very rarely I get intrusive thoughts which I often refer to as "fear of stairs' because every time I walk up/down a flight of stairs I imagine myself falling and damaging myself. Not fun! That's usually a sign that I need to try a little more or take some more of my "as needed" meds. OK, the things I do

- Meditation - I know this can be trite but for me, specifically, meditation has helped me learn to put space between a feeling and my need to have to do a thing about a feeling. So, like, if I person is a jerk to me at the supermarket. I can just be like "Well not cool of them, but maybe they have some stuff going on..." and I can walk away and not have to DO something. This is calming compared to holding on to that upset for a longer time or feeling that I have to reply, write a bitch letter, something
- Exercise - I take walks like it is my JOB, literally like two miles a day, just walking in little routes in my neighborhood. It helps me sleep. I see people. I get vitamin D (which I also take) and it gets me out of the house
- Staying away from people who are anxiety-provokers - obviously our life circumstances will determine this somewhat, but I had some acquaintances who were definitely more "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE" people and I just spend less time with them. For my close friends who are managing anxiety or depression, I'll talk more about the anxiety/depression, and how we can manage it but also set up some boundaries about not wanting to just doomscroll our friendship
- Sleep - I also have a sleep routine that is like a job. It's a little tiring but getting enough sleep, and limiting caffeine to mostly mornings, helps keep me able to employ all the other techniques

Everything else I am able to do for my anxiety comes from these things. I also read a book I really liked recently, Calm & Sense, that was a friendly guide to managing anxiety for women, though honestly it could work for anyone. It seems like it could be woo from the cover but the woman who wrote it has managed multiple major life challenges (cancer and some other things) and learned a lot of good things and shares them in a very open and easy way without a lot of judgment, like "Hey this works for some people maybe it will work for you" and I recommend it to people.
posted by jessamyn at 2:43 PM on January 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

I'd say I'm pretty anti-fear, and generally do not think it's helpful. This isn't to say I never feel fear of course, but I keep it bay by reminding myself why I find it counterproductive, and then focusing more on potential solutions to whatever the problem is. I also find it useful to ask myself, "Am I feeling fear in this situation because I've definitively identified a threat, or because this fits a certain stereotype of a threat that may or may not be true?" For example, I (a woman) am walking down an empty street at night and a man is walking the other way. The vast majority of men walking down streets in any given place are not prowling for victims, not that never happens, but I remind myself that if I feel some instinctive fear in such a moment, the odds are in my favor.

Relatedly, I have some statements that I try to live by, not so much because I think they're true, but because I think my life is better if I assume they're true, if that makes sense.

1. Most people are flawed, but not evil.

2. It's not worth worrying over something that hasn't happened yet.

3. Slim risks are not worth worrying about.

That doesn't mean being reckless. But like, sometimes I've hiked in bear territory. People do this all the time, and bear attacks are rare. That doesn't mean I don't refresh my memory of best practices before heading into bear country, but it does mean that I refuse to worry about bears.

So I suppose, in short: take comfort in the odds when they're in your favor, and prepare for potential dangers the best you can. But I'd also say, this is what works for me, and this was how I was raised- I don't necessarily think there is a universal answer here.
posted by coffeecat at 4:06 PM on January 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I try to think of fear as some part of me trying to protect me the only way it knows how.

Oftentimes, it is a part of me from long in the past, a pattern I learned in childhood, or in early relationships with other young people who were struggling to understand their own emotions and my own. Be Vigilant! This Person Will Put Themselves Before You! You Can Love Them, But Remember That You Are Not Their Priority, And They Will Probably Leave! If You're Unhappy, It's Probably Your Fault - Figure Out What's Wrong And Fix It! Sometimes, it's the more general patterns that most people learn - I See Pain In Your Future - Think Fast So That You Can Minimize It Now! Pay Attention - This Choice You're About To Make Might Fuck Everything Up Irrevocably!

Several wise people in my life have recommended trying to breathe, stay with the emotion, and offer that part of myself thanks and comfort. Often, I can't. But when I do, it feels very, very different to any other approach I've ever taken to dealing with my fear. My explicit and implicit understanding of fear has always been that it is a mental poison, a failing, something to be fought or cast out or prevented. Embracing the naturalness of my fear, and giving some tenderness to the part of myself that is trying so, so hard to regain control, to know the enemy, to keep me safe, is so radically different from anything I've tried before that I might find it valuable just because it surprises me.

Tara Brach's talks have been helpful to listen to for this kind of perspective, and some low-stakes meditation practice. Here's a recent talk on Fear and Love, and many more free talks (video and audio) to explore.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 6:19 PM on January 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Probably the most important tool I’ve learned is to make my fears specific and concrete. I never allow nameless fears to persist.

If I’m afraid to go to the dentist I need to work out (and usually write down) exactly what I’m afraid is going to happen. Everything from choking on my own spittle to drilling my teeth with ineffective anesthesia makes the list. Then I start throwing out the blatantly silly ones.

The fears that survive that process I take seriously, but in naming them I find I have taken away a lot of their power over me.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:26 PM on January 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Nah, no Gift of Fear, unless you're looking for a book about very specific types of usually gendered threats (stalking, sexual violence, etc.) and not generalized fear or anxiety

Well I'm using it along those lines, and it's helpful in that way, due to some of my anxieties being associated with similar situations (more often narrowly missing them due to high risk tolerance). To me the book is good for learning to (or giving permission to) trust one's intuition, to preserve a sense not necessarily of safety, but of non-danger, of recognizing and declining to participate in the more anxiety-producing parts of the world we live in. It's also helpful for me in a business context since so many abusive people are in positions of power, who use the same techniques, even if their threats and effects tend to ride on less physically-detrimental planes. Being a sensitive person working in startups I've absolutely had to think of people in terms of, for instance, trying to murder my career or future, and I don't see this as a cheapening of the book's topic.

And this is just one part of the field that OP Intentionally kept wide open, which I didn't interpret to mean "GA" generalized anxiety, so I wanted to make sure that the book was mentioned as a way to think of anxiety maybe more as a tool or organ than as an affliction.
posted by rhizome at 12:15 PM on January 11, 2022

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