We all feel fear. It’s a basic human emotion, one of the survival emotions which – evolutionarily speaking – has got us to where we are today[1]. So when fear creeps up on us, how do we overcome it?

What are your deepest fears? What frightens you?

It’s different for everyone and what may cause paralysing fear in one person may not impact another at all. The emotion is a strong one which can spur us into defensive action, sometimes out of all proportion to what is happening. For what do most of us actually have to fear in everyday life? Unless I am, for example, living in a war zone – which I am not – then why feel the palpable emotion of fear in response to common events in life, like public speaking or changing jobs?

There are two tiny structures in our brains called the amygdala, which are alerted by sensory signals. The amygdala are responsible for giving emotional significance to all experiences and the most powerful of these is fear, because it has the most survival value. When our brains sense the unknown and fear arises, we stand ready to flee, fight or freeze – instinctive survival reactions. The emotional side of the brain overwhelms the thinking side and we are afraid! The heart beats faster, the stomach clenches into a painful knot, palms sweat……….we’ve all been there! Unless we are truly in danger, the thinking brain usually catches up to calm us down, but sometimes that may not be enough and we may be left with a feeling that there is still something to fear, especially when it comes to addressing the unknown.

This strong emotional response originates from the way we have evolved. Yet most of the time, even though we are not in the sort of danger that the amygdala evolved to protect us from, the same fearful response can hold us back from experiencing so much more in life.

What are we afraid of?

In her book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”[2], Susan Jeffers says:

“Fear seems to be epidemic in our society. We fear beginnings, we fear endings. We fear changing; we fear staying stuck. We fear success; we fear failure. We fear living; we fear dying”.

Jeffers talks about re-educating the mind to accept fear as a fact of life rather than a barrier to success, which makes sense in the context of educating the mind to get to know the unknown. Thirty years on from when the book was published, evidence from neuroscience demonstrates that “re-training” the brain can have a significant effect on states of feeling and behaving.

Well, that’s easy then! All I have to do is re-train my brain! Of course, it often isn’t easy to overcome our fears; it takes courage, action, practice and an acceptance that failure may be an outcome at first – but that the rewards are great.

Have you ever wanted to change something in your life but not found the courage to do so? Or felt held back by fears about what might go wrong – as opposed to what might turn out really well?! Yes  – me too – but eventually I did something about it.

A couple of years ago I knew that it was time to change my job – I was no longer as engaged in my role as I wanted to be and I knew I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted. I had also trained to be a professional coach and I felt a pull towards coaching that I couldn’t ignore.

But hang on?!? Why would I give up a full-time, pretty secure job for……well, no income, a handful of clients and no idea of what was ahead? Hmmmm…….. I can’t do that. What will people say? I’ve been in HR for years; I can’t just up and leave……..so, I put up lots of barriers. My fears held me back, protecting me from the unknown.

I realised that I was concerned with my professional identity and what others would think of me. I was most concerned with who I would be and what would “inevitably” go wrong:

I’ve not done this before – fear of the unknown

Everyone will think I’ve made the wrong decision – fear of what others might say or think

I’ll get it wrong – fear of failing

I won’t get any work – fear of not being good enough

I might be good at it and that’s scary – fear of success!!

I also knew that it was now or never; I had been offered some coaching work and didn’t want to lose that opportunity. Even so, the prospect of actually resigning felt a bit scary – it was a big decision! I had resigned only once before so I prevaricated and in my head, a voice was telling me to stay put (what Jeffers calls the inner “chatterbox”) but my heart – my instincts – told me otherwise.

I knew that if I stayed put, nothing would change. I knew that if I let my cautious head rule my heart, I’d pass over the chance to so something new with my life. I also told myself that all my fears were actually unfounded – there was no hard evidence that I’d fail and in fact the opposite was true, because I was being offered work already.

The choice was mine and I chose what my heart and instincts were telling me; I was nervous when I told my boss but the relief I felt when I resigned told me that I’d done the right thing – I’d felt the fear and still make a choice to act. I had no idea what the future would hold but I knew that nothing would change unless I took action and I haven’t regretted that decision for a second.

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear” – Jack Canfield

If there’s something in your life that you want to do, you can find a way. If I can do it, then you can too.

And that decision to resign has encouraged me to try other new experiences such as more public speaking, delivering training courses…………..which might sound pretty ordinary to some people but were a stretch for me – and I’m proud of myself for having gone there.

There is so much that can be said on this topic of fear and my experience is far from unique. For that reason that I would encourage anyone who knows that fear is holding them back to do something about it – you will be grateful to yourself that you did. To live the life you want, you need to face those fears and push through them – and you can.

Jeffers’ book is a goldmine of techniques, advice and information, as anyone who has read it can tell you. I will end with one of the powerful statements that she asks:

Ask yourself what actions you would be taking if you were not afraid.

With that awareness, begin your journey, one step at a time.


[1] Neuropsychology for Coaches, Paul Brown & Virginia Brown, OUP (2012) p.20.

[2] Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers, Vermillion (1987) p.1.