For several years in my early adulthood I didn’t go to the dentist. I know, gross. You’re probably wondering, just how many years is “several?” Not gonna tell; it’s too embarrassing. But I was scared–of the needle, the drill, getting a lecture about neglect, being told in my early 30s I’d need dentures . . .
It wasn’t until after grad school that I finally got a toothache. I planned on traveling soon and I didn’t like the prospect of being far from home and needing emergency dental work. I bit the bullet, shopped for a dentist, and booked an appointment.
As you might expect, my first exam after several years did not yield a clean bill of health. I had a cavity in each of my molars–12 in all. Still, it could have been worse. What helped even more was having a kind, compassionate dentist who explained that my upcoming fillings weren’t going to be as torturous as I would imagine.
It’s funny that a few months before the dentist, I had just undergone a breast biopsy to investigate a lump, and had to wait two months for my benign results. After my breast cancer scare, I realized that I could handle these fillings, especially since I could get them in four different sessions. Despite my worst fears, I got through it.
Whether it’s an upcoming dental procedure, a breast biopsy, or quitting a secure but stressful job, I don’t think it’s the actual event that’s scary. It’s the emotions we might be afraid to feel, whether they’re real or imagined. It’s normal to want to avoid experiences that threaten to be painful. But a certain amount of pain is inevitable.
What Fear Can Do to Us
Fear can have physiological effects. Like many humans, when I’m really afraid, my heart races, my breathing gets shallow, my mouth goes dry, and I lose sleep. Sometimes I get stomach pain. Other physical effects include compromised immunity, changes in eating, and disruptions to the nervous system.
Fear can have psychological consequences as well. When we become so afraid of these emotions and decide to avoid the experience altogether, we lose out. However, opportunity usually comes with risk.
Unfortunately, I’ve missed out on too many opportunities–auditioning for a music scholarship, applying for some jobs, leaving relationships that were bad for me. I didn’t see the potential; I only saw the risks. I was so afraid of the negative outcomes that I felt too paralyzed to take any chances.
There is such a thing as reasonable fear. It keeps me from exploring the dark web, driving without a seatbelt, or shopping at a crowded grocery store without a mask.
However, fear shouldn’t be the reason to avoid something like preventive health care, freedom from a harmful relationship, or a lucrative job opportunity. Unchecked fear can interfere with our happiness. It also can distort our perception of our current reality and hold us back from a better one.
Feel the Fear . . . and Just Go For It
I still feel the inability to act at times, but I’m trying hard to overcome it. I got some help from Susan Jeffers‘s book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. The take-away for me was the importance of trusting myself to make good decisions, and to know that even if something bad happens, I can handle it!
Here are other ways to help you face whatever scares you:
Stare down your fear. Figure out exactly what it is you’re afraid will happen: “If I quit my job, I’ll ________.” or “If I start my own business, _______ will happen to me.” Write it down and look at it, and then figure out how the likelihood of that outcome. Suppose you’re worried about lost income because of quitting your job or starting a business. In that case, you can go into anticipation mode and take steps to make it less likely to happen.
Get repeated exposures. The more you experience an unpleasant event, the less scary it’ll seem in teh long run. I still get afraid of an approaching dental check-up. However, getting my cleaning every six months has desensitized me the dentist and made me less anxious. Repeated exposure to scary scenarios or events can do wonders to curb your fear.
Try incremental doses. If it’s a job change you’re scared of, try taking on a side gig first. Once you’re comfortable with that adjustment, give yourself permission to look at job postings, and then apply for a job. Taking small steps can help you overcome worrying about what might happen if you actually break free from an undesirable job, even if’s given you stability in the past.
Laugh at it. Humor helps us see the absurd, and it deflates our biggest fears. The last time I had a stressful presentation, I remembered a short sketch on Robot Chicken: The scene is a spelling bee at the Appollo Theatre. A frightened girl is on stage and comically shaking while trying to spell a word while the audience heckles her mercilessly. I imagined this happening to me, and it just made me chuckle.
Since I couldn’t find the Robot Chicken clip, here’s a related sketch:
Be kind to yourself. What advice would you give to someone else? You’d certainly be supportive of a friend facing a scary situation, wouldn’t you? The Golden Rule applies to you, too.
Fear can be a good thing if it protects us from harm. However, excessive fear can prevent us from living life on our own terms and creating our happiness. Making a change can seem risky, but making a plan, getting support, and having coping strategies can help us get past the fear . . . and do it anyway.
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