Fear and Anxiety: How to Overcome the ‘Useless’ Varieties

Often the biggest blockers to our success, when we analyse fear and anxiety we realise how nonsensical they are – though very hard it seems to do anything about. Or is it?

I had a hunch back around 2000 that fear was something that could be avoided, and I remember saying to my team at Bestfoods, who were going through the merger with Unilever and likely to lose their jobs, that fear is not about x or y, but it’s fear of fear. It’s almost like we don’t want to have that feeling, and what we’re afraid of is not always tangible anyway. I remember a little later as Unilever was also ‘narrowing down’, that people were terrified to leave their ‘loving home’ of 20 or 30 years. Seemed a bit ridiculous to me at the time, as the loving home was ejecting them, but I am someone who enjoys change so would not have been such an issue for me. But of course in retrospect later, many of them said it was the best thing that had ever happened to them. So not only did they get through it all, but they found greater happiness and fulfilment ultimately.

Franklin D Roosevelt said, in his inaugural speech: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear…is fear itself.” Another angle on fear, and very true. It is what debilitates us and stops us from being the best version of ourselves, and consequently from making the best/right decisions. And it was the first thing he chose to speak about at that important moment…

Will Smith has more recently said, “Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me: danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”

This is a great insight, understanding that danger and fear are not the same thing. Danger is not an emotion created by humans, but an external factor. And fear of something dangerous is sensible, as that’s about survival. There is a great example of this in Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear. A woman who is about to be murdered but is being told all will be OK, notices something in her subconscious (her assailant closes the window), and makes a run for it, saving her life. Her subconscious told her that he was shutting the window so no one could hear her (screams). This kind of fear is very useful, but fortunately it’s not often we need to avail ourselves of it.

So what can we do to address this ‘anomaly’, and reserve fear and anxiety for things that do exist right now, as Will Smith puts it?

Roosevelt also said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Looking for what is more important is one way of tackling fear and anxiety (or at least the ‘useless’ variety), as courage overcomes fear to an extent.

Let’s take an example. In London there is a small park where, on a brick façade there are plaques remembering people who died saving the lives of others – saving people who were drowning, or in a fire etc. They were no doubt very afraid themselves, but they had courage as it was more important to them to save their brother’s life, for example, than to be frozen by fear.

In the workplace it is perhaps more nuanced, but when feeling afraid or suffering anxiety about something, it can be helpful to put it in perspective. To ask yourself what is actually the worst thing that could happen, to tell yourself that this is an emotion but not the same as something happening, and that actually there can be various different outcomes. Also useful to say to yourself that you will be much better able to cope with whatever comes at you if you are in a good state of mind. Fear is debilitating, whether it makes you fight, run or freeze, and does not help us achieve our goals.

Another approach is in effect to stare the fear right in the eye, exploring the feeling and giving it your whole focus – at which point it actually lessens, as your mind is busy with something else, i.e. the ‘exploration’ you are doing.

And it’s also about practice and values. I have found through life that the more I practise being courageous, as well as working on calming myself with (positive) mind talk, the less fear I experience. Also, if I remind myself of my values in a situation, and know I am acting by and for them, I also overcome fear and anxiety. And finally, as Scarlet O’Hara said: “After all, tomorrow is another day”; this is something I tell myself when I can’t see a positive outcome, and fear starts to try to take over again. I know that when I look back at the situation in the future, it will have an entirely different perspective. And fear will not have changed a thing for the better, only for the worse.

Caroline Stockmann, Chief Executive, ACT


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