Managing Our Fears

 

© 2021 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, May/June issue, 2021

I learned about fear on a harrowing VFR flight over the mountains of North Carolina. The visibility was reported as 4–5 miles. But when I took my eyes off the hazy morning sky for a quick instrument check, I looked up to find the classic VFR pilot’s nightmare. The world was gone, buried behind an impenetrable gray haze.

Since higher peaks and worse conditions were behind me, I decided my best course of action was simply to maintain course until conditions improved. I’d always done well in instrument training, so the task shouldn’t have been difficult. But as the minutes stretched on and things didn’t improve, my doubts and fears started attacking me. And every time I felt the fear rising in my throat, constricting my heart and shortening my breath, my abilities faltered. The wings tilted. The nose dropped. Panic crept closer in a tightening and suffocating circle.

istock-photo_1207309866_person_falling.jpg

In his classic tale Fate is the Hunter, the writer Ernie Gann described the difference between fright and fear. Fright, he said, was a momentary alert that could be helpful, because it sharpened a pilot’s senses and focus. Fear, he said, took longer to take hold. But it was a debilitating and dangerous emotion, degrading a pilot’s ability to function.

Gann was right. And his wisdom applies to more than just flying.

I survived that 45-minute ordeal over the mountains because I realized in time the danger my fear posed and mounted a successful, take-no-prisoners battle to lock it in the baggage compartment until I was in the clear. But the episode prompted me to look more deeply into the origins and management of fear.

We may think more about fear when there are physical threats facing us. But fear doesn’t just keep us from functioning well in physical emergencies. It also hinders us in our careers and personal lives, leading us to stay in places we aren’t happy, undersell our abilities, stay silent when we need to speak up, or operate from a defensive crouch that damages our ability to build strong relationships and interact effectively with others. Beyond that, fear can keep us from embracing the kind of explorer’s mindset that allows us to grow, learn from our experiences, and gain the kind of self-awareness we need to create happy and fulfilling careers and lives.

That’s not to say I think anyone can or should strive to be “fearless.” The trick is learning how to manage our fears, even when they’re justified, so we can cope with potential problems more effectively and keep fear from limiting our ability to live and function at our best.

The first step in managing fear is to remember that fear is a creature of the future. Our fears are almost always about something we’re afraid will come to pass, not something that’s happening right now. What we’ll find, if we look too hard. What will happen, if we make that choice, take that chance, or events don’t go our way.

But because fear is so focused on the future, it means we can carve out some critical breathing space simply by asking ourselves: “Am I okay right now?” If the answer is “yes,” we can take a deep breath, reassured that we have some time to think things through. If the answer is “no,” it at least focuses us on the alligator closest to the boat; tangible elements we need to address in order to stabilize our circumstances. But either way, it shifts our focus into a calmer, action-oriented space.

Once we gain that space to think more clearly, the next step is to name and categorize the fear we’re feeling. In more than 25 years of life adventures, I’ve found that my fears always fall into one of three categories: 1) invalid, 2) valid but avoidable, or 3) valid and unavoidable.

Invalid fears are the ones most easily vanquished. My dear departed friend Pat Luebke always used to say that “monsters live in the dark.” She and I would talk about our shared fear of ending up penniless and unemployable, sleeping on the 3rd Avenue subway grate. In our minds, that fear of abject failure was real. But at the same time, it wasn’t valid. The truth was that both Pat and I would of gotten some kind of work long before we ended up destitute. Our fear was a monster living in the dark. And as soon as we named it out loud and fact-checked its validity, we diminished its power to keep us awake at night.  

Next are the fears that are valid, but avoidable. More than once in my airplane, when I felt fear rising up, I realized it was about something that actually might happen. The weather might deteriorate. The engine might quit. In my professional life, I’ve also been afraid of being unable to find work or make ends meet. Those fears aren’t crazy. But there are still ways to combat them. First, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that happens here? Does anybody die?” If the answer is “no,” it puts whatever you’re afraid of into a more reasonable perspective. But regardless of the answer, the next step is to figure out a plan to keep that scary future from becoming real. In an airplane, that might mean setting non-negotiable limits for landing at the nearest airport if conditions deteriorate to “x.” In a work situation, it might be a specific plan for cold-calling or applying for new jobs, to ward off the fear of losing the one you have. But the key is naming the fear and devising a specific plan to avoid it.

The hardest fears to manage are those that are both valid and unavoidable. I’m very afraid of losing my parents, but I’m going to, very soon, now. Cancer patients are almost always terrified, and justifiably so. Those are the real, life-and-death fears where someone can die, and there’s no way around the darkness. In those cases, our only option is to find a way through that keeps our fears from swallowing us whole. How do we do that? With difficulty. But two things help. The first is choosing what to focus on. If you focus on the big, unavoidable scary, it can be paralyzing. So don’t. Focus instead on the next step in front of you, and what immediate steps you can take to affect the outcome or improve your quality of life. That alone transforms you from victim to protagonist, which is empowering. And second, work to build a support network to sustain you through the darkness. Monsters may live in the dark, but fear also grows stronger when we feel alone.

The last weapon we can use to manage our fears is one of faith. Human beings are remarkably strong, adaptable, and resilient creatures. So when we’re actually faced with the things we’re afraid of, we generally manage better than we fear we will. Keep faith in that strength. And keep faith in the sunrise, as well. Remember that no matter how dark and scary the night gets, the sun always eventually rises again … bringing with it light, renewal, and the hope of a new day.