What Agoraphobia Taught Me About Fear Versus Facts

May 19, 2016

Most of us get paralyzed by fear at some point, whether it’s in our professional or personal lives. We know that taking a certain action or making a specific change will give us the results we say we truly want. But when it comes time to act, we freeze. We procrastinate. We explain, justify and excuse ourselves from the tough call.

Related: How Fear Warps Your Thinking—and 3 Ways You Can Fight Back

Why? Fear, of course. But if it were as simple as mustering our courage and powering through, we’d all be at the pinnacle of success. Instead, we struggle daily in big and small ways to get around the fear.

Rather than trying to exercise sheer willpower against fear, I want to help you see right through it so you can get to the other side with less struggle.

First, I need to tell you a little story about my history with fear.

When I was 21 years old, I started having panic attacks.

If you’re not familiar with panic and how it’s different from anxiety, you can think of it like this:

Anxiety might be the feeling you get when you’re late for work or about to give a presentation. You feel irritable, scatterbrained, maybe short of breath. Your chest might feel tight and you might even describe yourself as “panicky.”

Related: 10 Ways Successful People Stay Calm

But real panic, in a clinical sense, is different. Panic is the feeling you would get if you walked into your house at night, turned on the light, and a man in a ski mask was holding a gun to your face. It’s the certain knowledge that your life is on the line. Your mind and body are thrown into a fight-or-flight response. If you can imagine yourself faced with imminent death and the accompanying terror, you’re close to understanding what someone experiences when they have a panic attack.

Now, I’m not a psychiatrist, but I did live for about a year with panic attacks that became so frequent and debilitating that I wound up with agoraphobia. I was terrified to leave my house.

Why? Because every time I did, I had a panic attack. I was experiencing this horrific state of mind and body up to 10 times a day. The stressors of everyday life were no longer just anxiety-provoking for me. They brought on full-blown panic.

When I finally got some professional help, an amazing doctor explained to me that my resting state of anxiety and stress were so high that it didn’t take much to push me over the edge. So we set out to adopt behaviors that would lower that resting state of anxiety as a first step to lessen the frequency of attacks.

Over time, I learned how to control and then stop the attacks before they started. I learned how to calm myself, read my own body for negative signs of stress, and develop an inner voice that could quell the fear that constantly plagued me.

During the process of recovery, I also learned something about fear that I hadn’t known before. And now I realize a lot of other people don’t know this either. Here’s what I learned:

Fear masquerades as fact.

Now, you may be saying, “Yeah, Amy, I know that.” But do you really? I mean, do you really know it so well that you never fall for fear in disguise, much less fall for it every day?

Let’s take a look at three ways that we fool ourselves:

1. We confuse the potential consequences with potential catastrophes.

Here’s what I mean by this: We think about a negative outcome that has a reasonable possibility of occurring, but we fear a catastrophe that is highly unlikely. This incongruence between what we’re preparing for and what we fear causes so much stress and inner turmoil that we get paralyzed.

For example, let’s say I want to start a business. I’m miserable in my full-time job and my family is on board with the idea, mostly. I have a savings account that will last us six months without my paycheck. But I’m terrified to quit my job. Why?

I tell myself—and my spouse, friends and anyone else who will listen—that I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it “in this economy” or “without employer health insurance” or “because I have brown hair.” Whatever.

But deep inside, the fear I experience when I think of quitting my job is not about succumbing to any sort of real-life obstacle. My fear is about the catastrophe that lies in wait on the other side. It’s fear disguised as fact.

I envision myself failing as a business owner, being unable to pay my family’s bills, suffering medical issues that my cut-rate health insurance won’t cover, succumbing to illness, alienating my spouse who is bankrupt and now working two jobs, failing my children, losing the respect of my friends and peers, wasting away and finally dying, leaving my family destitute.

That’s the size of the fear in my chest when I tell my friends I’m afraid I’ll fail as a business owner. Not the whole “what if health insurance is really expensive” excuse. I fear actual death and destruction.

Of course, reading this, you can see how irrational this line of thinking is. Is it a possible outcome? Yes. Is it a probable outcome? No. The fact is that I could succumb to some kind of horrible illness working a 9-to-5 job I hate and still bankrupt my family.

So what am I actually afraid of? If what I fear isn’t a fact, then it’s an illusion. I’m basing my decision to stay miserable on the illusion that I will lose everything if I make a change. Now that’s scary.

Here’s the solution: Ask yourself, What’s the worst that can happen? Is that what you fear? If so, talk it out with someone who is objective and experienced in that issue. Ask for help in discerning what is realistic caution and what is doomsday paranoia.

2. We use our feelings as a guide in making decisions.

Now, I can already hear some of you arguing with me before you even read what I have to say here. So please just bear with me.

First, I am not saying that feelings shouldn’t ever play a part in decision-making. Often how we feel is a primary factor in whether or not we should do something.

What I do want you to pay attention to is how realistic your feelings are and whether they should be the guiding factor in your choices. Let me give you an example.

I email a client about an urgent matter, and I need him to respond within 48 hours. The first day, I hear nothing from him. I follow up with another email the next morning—this time using all caps in the subject line. Still nothing.

My feeling is this guy is ignoring me. His delay will push the entire project timeline back, which will jeopardize the financial outcome. In other words, I’m afraid he’s going to blow the whole deal for me. (Remember point No. 1? Do you hear the catastrophe in disguise as a consequence here?)

By this time, I’m seriously scared, but it feels a heck of a lot like anger. In my mind, I’m bad-mouthing him. I’m thinking of all the other times he was rude or unresponsive or even just slightly on the curt side. I’m thinking he has no respect for me and my work boundaries, and a billion other poor-me thoughts. My feelings are hurt.

These negative feelings can sabotage a scary situation if we allow them to be the guide in our decision-making. If I choose to react to my client out of anger or annoyance, I’ll probably jeopardize that deal all on my own (nobody likes a snarky email).

But what if I back up and remove my feelings from the situation? What if I tell myself that regardless of the outcome, my values dictate that I treat people with respect and compassion? Rather than shooting off a snarky email or a passive-aggressive text, I could pick up the phone and find out if he’s OK or if there’s anything I can do to expedite the turnaround on what I need from him.

The next time you’re about to act out of fear, ask yourself if the negative feelings you’re experiencing are calling the shots. That’s just another way fear pretends to be a fact.

3. We don’t weigh the facts correctly.

This one is tricky because there are actual facts involved. But the fear gives us license to weigh certain facts as if they were more important than they actually are.

Related: Fake It and 5 Other Ways to Conquer Self-Doubt

For me, this happens a lot when I’m good at something, but my inner critic tells me I should be afraid of doing it anyway. I’ll line up all of the compliments or great outcomes, then excuse them away with lines in my head like, “Well, she’s my friend—what else would she say?” or “Yeah, but I spent 10 months preparing for that. I could never do that again,” or even “Yeah, but I think that was a fluke.”

I’m naming facts, such as preparation time or the love someone has for me and assigning them more weight than the actual results of my actions. If you’re good at what you do, the results speak for themselves. It’s imperative that you measure real results and real feedback as more important than the doubts, exceptions and fears in your mind.

Look, I still feel fear. I wake up some days and think, “Oh no, I’m scared to face that interview/project/discussion/large dog.”

But here’s my final piece of advice: Fear is a fact of life. We’re not going to get rid of it. But we can see through its disguise and choose lives based on facts. I’m writing this so that maybe, just maybe, you don’t have to live a life paralyzed by fear. Because believe me when I say that I know how hellish that existence is.

Just in case you’re confused about what the facts are, let me tell you that the facts, my friend, are these:

You’ve got what it takes. You are loved. Your dream is worth it. And if you need help, there’s someone willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Related: 5 Tips to Overcome Your (Probably Irrational) Fears

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