You feel it in your gut before you can articulate it, your heartbeat quickens, and your breathing becomes shallow.
Your senses are on high alert and you’re beset by a deep sense of foreboding, a hunch that tells you danger is imminent.
But is it?
Many years ago at the height of a challenging time that involved death threats and police intervention, I froze in terror on a North London street. I heard someone running behind me and immediately assumed the person who had vowed to kill me had arrived.
That this was as unlikely as unrealistic didn’t cross my mind at the time.
Few people knew where I had moved to, namely only my parents, a couple of trusted friends, and law enforcement.
But I lived in constant fear for many weeks, drank myself into oblivion every day, and lost the ability to function normally.
Even though all necessary steps had been taken to ensure my safety, I was restless, sleepless, and an anxious mess.
And yet, this fear had no basis other than my wild imaginings as the threats stopped the moment I reported them to the police.
Back then, fear was the lens through which I processed life.
To avoid being constantly overwhelmed, I sought to numb all my senses.
Alas, alcohol doesn’t make for clarity of mind and something had to give, in this particular case my sales job in commercial television.
Unwilling to subject to the torture of fear any longer, I packed up my life again, moved to the seaside, and stopped drinking.
In response, my mind finally calmed down, enough for me to change careers and embrace one based on public accountability, i.e. journalism.
I wasn’t going to spend the rest in my life in hiding or looking over my shoulder.
So I flipped the bird at fear in the most public way I could come up with, freed myself from the hold it had on me, and reclaimed my mental and physical health in the process.
Some fifteen years have passed since then, during which time my late friend Anthony taught me one valuable lesson:
“Think of fear as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real,” he said.
Fear is endemic to our society.
In a culture as ruthless and unforgiving as capitalism, there’s no safety net to catch us when we fall and individualism rules.
Absent solidarity, it’s every human for themself, and life looks like a competition that demands we strive without respite.
As a result, many of us are terrified of being incapacitated by illness and losing everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Because we fear ending up destitute, we let a scarcity mindset take over as we become greedier and grabbier, forever dissatisfied.
Instead of living in the present and enjoying it, we squander our attention on worst case scenarios.
Frequently mistaken for strategic thinking, none of those scenarios are real but tricks our minds play on us. Despite having no data, our minds run amok and magnify trouble, stress, and worry until they look like undistinguishable from reality.
Soon, anxiety takes over and the most sensitive among us become unable to counter it, letting it instead snowball and infect all that is good in our life.
This is no way to live.
Not only is it exhausting, but it wears us out physically too as it triggers all kinds of metabolic responses. Those place undue stress on our organs and endocrine system, making us sick.
Under such circumstances, critical thinking becomes impossible and yet it’s the only solution.
Fears need tackling head on otherwise they worm their way into every aspect of our lives.
Asking ourselves why we fear what we fear and collecting evidence that might justify our fears is essential. More often than not, you will come up empty handed if you investigate thoroughly enough.
For example, you might feel slighted, ignored, and unloved when your partner doesn’t return your text messages. Instead of talking to them about it, you start assuming they’re losing interest in your relationship, or worse.
But what if they happen to be the kind of person who isn’t always wedded to their smartphone and makes a point of leaving it behind as often as they can?
Yes, such people do exist.
Having the intellectual curiosity to look into the root of our fears can save us a lot of distress and help us avoid feeling unsettled all the time.
The more curious we get, the clearer the mechanics of fear will become, and the sharper our intuition.
While anticipating danger can save our life in extreme situations, those are thankfully rare in the West.
So take a deep breath, step back, and closely watch what your mind is doing then go gather information to assess whether your fear is justified.
Because it probably isn’t.