How rational are our fears?  

In late 2007 a study discovered the word that evoked the greatest fear.  The study included the words spider, snake death, rape, murder and incest.  

“Shark” evoked the strongest reaction.

But why?  Sharks rarely come in contact with us.  Three reasons:  the seeming randomness of their strike, the lack of warning for it and the apparent lack of remorse.

Why this is especially important for women to understand?

We women worry more than men. Much more.

And worry leads to fear, as Adrianna Huffington has noted in her book Fearless.  Yet, how can we know when a fear for personal safety is justified and when a worry is sapping our spirit and making us see the world simply as a dangerous place?

 “Our fears are fashioned out of the ways in which we perceive the world,” wrote Gavin Becker, author of The Gift of Fear:  Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.

1. Recognize when someone’s hostile or other less apparently dangerous actions are, in fact, a danger to you, so you can act to protect yourself, and not let unfounded fears and worry contaminate your life.

Whenever you’ve felt profound fear, it was linked to the presence of danger, imminent pain or death.  Said DeBecker, “When we get a fear signal, our intuition has already made many connections.

When you feel it, take notice to find the link back to see if you need to take action.  That’s important because as the “shark” study showed, our fears are not always “rational.”  Yet we can put ourselves in danger when we disregard our genuine fears.

The most apparently unlikely people are predators. While the media often portray human violence as random, de Becker points out that it seldom.  You can anticipate the patterns in most cases, if you listen to your instinct of genuine fear and take action.

You can better protect yourself by learning to recognize and act on the intuitive signals you pick up but reject as unfounded.

2. Worry, on the other hand, is the fear we manufacture.

Worry, anxiety, concern and wariness all have a purpose, but they are not fear.  Any time your dreaded outcome cannot be reasonably linked to pain or death and it isn’t a signal in the presence of danger, then it really should not be confused with fear.

Worry will not bring solutions.  Worry distracts from finding solutions. It is a form of self-harassment.

To free yourself from worry sooner, understand what it really is.  Most people worry because it provides some secondary reward such as:

• Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t do anything about the matter.

• Worry allows us to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we’re doing something.  Prayer also makes us feel like we’re doing something, and even the most committed agnostic will admit that prayer is more productive than worry.

•  Worry is a cloying way to have a connection with others.  Worry somehow shows love.  The other side of this is the beleif that not worrying about someone means you don’t care about that person.  As many people who’ve been worried about know well, worry is a poor substitute for love or for taking loving action.

• Worry is a protection against future disappointment.  After you complete an important project where the success of your approach won’t be known for some while, for example, you can worry about it.  Ostensibly, if you can feel the experience of failure now, rehearse it, so to speak, by worrying about it, then failing won’t feel as bad when it happens.

But how would you want to spend the time while you find out:  worrying, playing or initiating another action on another endeavor?

For some people, worrying is a “magical amulet”, according to Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman.  Some people feel it wards off danger.  They truly believe that worrying about something will stop it from happening.

Most of what people worry about has a low probability of occurring, because we tend to take action about those things we feel are likely to occur.  This means that very often the mere fact that you are worrying about something is a predictor that it isn’t likely to happen.

The connection between real fear and worry is similar to the relationship between pain and suffering.  

Pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life.  
Suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary parts of life.  Worry interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens your life.

When worrying, ask yourself, “How does this serve me?”
To be free of fear and yet still get its gift (to protect you from dangerous situations), consider these techniques:

1. When you feel fear, listen.

2.  When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

We Choke on Anxiety

Anxiety, unlike real fear and like worry, is always caused by uncertainty.  it is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence.  If you predict you will be fired and you are certain that your prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired, but about the ramifications of losing a job.

Predictions in which you have a high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever you need to do.  You can reduce your anxiety by improving your predictions, thus increasing your certainty.  It is worth doing, because the word anxiety, like worry, stems from a root that means “to choke,” and that is just what it does to us.

Our imaginations can be fertile soil in which worry and anxiety grow from seeds to weeds, but when we assume the imagined outcome is a sure thing, we are in conflict with what Proust called an inexorable law:  “Only that which is absent can be imagined.”  In other words, what you imagine -- just like what you fear -- is not happening.