The Panic of Fear

There have been times in my life when I have felt fear. Fear of loss, when I was unable to reach my mother when she was abroad in late 2001. Fear of embarrassment, when I was placed in situations where I didn’t know anyone and was asked to pretend to be someone that I didn’t believe in. Fear of loss of self, when people gaslighted me about what I knew to be true and they insisted weren’t. Fear of exposure when I worried that I wasn’t ready for something and everyone would notice that I wasn’t ready. Fear of death, when I was injured and in pain and when I awoke one strange morning in the 1980’s to a strange silence and green skies, and wondered if Reagan had finally lost his marbles entirely and started nuclear war. (Spoiler alert: he hadn’t.)

Many more times, I have wondered at the panic of fear around me. Fear of riots after Rodney King and the O.J. verdict. Fear of terror as rumor of anthrax and snipers – surprisingly real threats – raced through the media and the people who surrounded me. Fear of weather as people scooped food off the grocery store shelves – in Manhattan – because of an impending storm. Fear of politicians that leads calm, rational people into tiresome tirades and send the more fragile into professional care.

We see this at work, too. Fear of stock market crashes that will lead to layoffs. Fear of reorganizations and what it will do to your department, your friends, your job. Fear of new leadership and what they will want to change.

Fear of change itself.

The symptoms are obvious: call-outs, gossip, low productivity, bickering over minor issues.

The cure for fear is surprisingly simple: action. Not reaction – the panicked sweeping of groceries off the shelf – but thoughtful action on someone else’s behalf. In your personal life, thoughtful listening and counseling of a scared child calls on your confidence; reassuring a terrified elderly person increases your personal power. If you are afraid of layoffs, go work in your stores, help the people who actually control the company’s profitability on a daily basis. Fear of reorganization? Set up an idea-sharing group, where people can recognize the good that has come out of past change and look for the good that could come out of the situation. When you’re afraid of new leadership, look for opportunities to meet this person, see if you can interview them for your company newsletter, and share what you learn with others. I know one person who, faced with recent political events, has volunteered for poll-working, encouraging others to vote, regardless of their choice.

In other words, put on your own oxygen mask quickly, then help other passengers.

An increasing number of studies show that doing something for someone else alleviates depression, reduces stress, and makes you a happier person.

In The Fear Factor, the author interviews a number of people who do brave things and the thing they have in common is altruism: when they are at their bravest, rushing in where others fear to go, they are thinking of the people they are helping, not themselves. These people are not fearless – the book contrasts these heroes with people who never feel fear and don’t even recognize it as an emotion (psychopaths) – the fear is there beneath it all, and they move beyond it by focusing on the people they are helping.

Think of this the next time you are faced with the panic of fear.

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