We know fears right from childhood – The monsters under the bed! The ghosts in the dark! As we grow, our fear monsters change in nature. A common one that we encounter is the fear of uncertainty – what will happen if I lose my job/project/business, my health, my partner, etc.

Regardless of the time frame of our fears, they are stories that happen in our heads. They have the same architecture, i.e., they have characters, plots, beginnings, middle & ends. Imagery lends them color. Just as we try to guess the climax of stories, fear makes us think about the future. The difference is that we are the authors as well as the readers of stories that are ‘our fears’. How we read, has a powerful impact on our life. A good reader essentially has two temperaments –

1. The artistic passion which makes them get caught up in the story, and laugh and cry with the characters, and

2. The scientist’s attitude, which keeps them cool-headed and complicates the intuitive reaction to the story

You may have heard of the story of the whaleship Essex, in which 20 sailors found themselves in small whaleboats because their ship was hit by a whale. They had the option to sail towards-

–         the closest known islands which were 1200 miles west but were rumored to be inhabited by cannibals, or

–         a destination ~4000 miles away, with no cannibals but the surety of running out of their food and water supplies. 

They chose the longer route. As a result, only 8 out of the 20 sailors were rescued in three different attempts, 89, 93, and 135 days after the ship sank.

These sailors had incredibly good artistic passion, but they did not have the levers of scientific attitude to help them believe in the right story. Their vivid imagination made them accept the story of cannibals rather than the story of hunger & deprivation en route to the farther off islands.

At this point, let me share the concept of ‘Productive Paranoia’ introduced by Jim Collins, in his book Great by Choice. His research indicated that leaders whose businesses thrive regardless of circumstances read their fears closely. They actively anticipate the worst by asking themselves, “What if? What if? What if?” and systematically prepare for the outcome. Their paranoia makes them plan and prepare, so that when/if the disaster strikes, they can act from a position of strength. This concept can be used to navigate personal lives as well. Digging into the layers of fear, evaluating risks, and taking well thought out actions towards the future is bound to make you stronger.

The physiological reactions to fear, i.e., the release of cortisol and adrenaline, the rush of blood to limbs, etc. are not in our control. However, we can control our breathing. Anytime, we are afraid or stressed in any way, our breathing becomes shallow. Being aware and consciously doing deep breathing exercises grounds us to the present moment and helps calm the fear response.

In the end, I want to quote from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, ‘Long walk to freedom’ –

“Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea. I have seen men stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resiliency that defies the imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”