Fear of the unknown: how to overcome it in 5 steps?

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Louise Hay
@louisehay
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We all experience fear of the unknown. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are animals of habit. We tend to think that "a known evil is better than an unknown good". It is true that we all enjoy novelty. But in the right measure and only up to a certain point. When we feel that control is slipping away and uncertainty begins to creep in, we begin to feel uncomfortable. And that discomfort can quickly degenerate into paralyzing fear.


The origin of the fear of the unknown

Fear is one of the most useful basic emotions we can experience. It warns us of a potential danger and tells us to stay vigilant to get to safety if necessary. Fear of the unknown, in particular, is an atavistic fear that arises from our reluctance to be uncertain. In fact, the origin of this fear is evolutionary. Our ancestors were exposed to a great number of dangers every day, especially when they went to unknown areas where the risks could multiply.


When we don't know a person or find ourselves in a new situation, the fear response is activated again to help us be more attentive to the small details that may indicate danger. We don't know what will happen because we lack the benchmarks or information we need to draw conclusions, so we need to be vigilant.

Our brain, in fact, is particularly predisposed to fear the unknown. A study conducted at California Technological University found that when we are faced with situations involving a high degree of uncertainty, two regions of the brain are activated, the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex.

The amygdala is the area in charge of detecting dangers and sending the alarm signal while the orbitrofrontal cortex processes this message from a cognitive point of view. The curious fact is that when we fear the unknown we become more conservative. We are more reluctant to make mistakes and the inhibitory behavioral system is activated, which means we have a tendency to freeze.



But as uncertainty increases, our behavior becomes more erratic and we can make more irrational decisions. The situation simply overwhelms our coping resources and we lose control.

What we lose out of fear

Fear of the unknown is an adaptive reaction. But we no longer live in caves like our ancestors and in today's environment that fear can be more of a hindrance than an adaptive response. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Illinois found that those most sensitive to uncertain threats are also more vulnerable to developing anxiety and suffering from panic attacks.

When we are overly sensitive to uncertainty and the unknown, we can spend much of our life anxious and worried that something bad might happen to us. Living in that state is not living, it's just surviving. We reject new experiences and miss opportunities only because they contain the germ of the unknown. This means that we languish in the known as we waste our potential.

In the long run, fear of the unknown can even stiffen us. Fear of the unknown prevents us from opening up to new ideas and ways of doing things, which leads to intellectual stagnation. We begin to reject the new, seeking refuge in the old because it is the only safe and comfortable thing. At that precise moment we stop growing.

How to overcome the fear of the unknown?

1. Accept the fear of the unknown

Nelson Mandela said that "it is not brave who is not afraid but who knows how to overcome it". Everyone, without exception, is afraid. Fear is part of life and has an adaptive function. We just have to make sure it doesn't guide our decisions and doesn't become a limitation.


Therefore, if we fear new situations and those that contain a high level of uncertainty, the first step in overcoming the fear of the unknown is to accept it. Deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are not afraid, finding excuses and resorting to mechanisms such as rationalization will only serve to continue to feed the fear.


2. Find its origin

If we have a particularly intense suspicion of new circumstances or strangers, it is worth delving into the cause of that fear of the unknown. Is it due to some bad experience in the past? Perhaps it is a learned fear that our parents passed on to us?

It's about understanding that past experiences don't have to determine our present or future. The past represents another "I". We are now another person, with more coping experience and resources, which gives us the ability to better manage uncertain situations.

3. Question the predictions

Fear of the unknown tends to leverage our negativity bias. Fears grow in our minds making us imagine the worst possible scenarios. It is important to stop that negative inner dialogue by resorting to logic. What evidence supports my fear? What evidence do I have that something bad will happen? What's the worst that can happen?

Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher, said: "Many of the anxieties that plague us are superfluous: being only creatures of our imagination, we can get rid of them and expand into a wider region, letting our thinking encompass the entire universe." Therefore, many times we should not pay so much attention to our thinking or we may fall into the trap of cognitive fusion.


4. Learn to navigate in uncertainty

Fear of the unknown is closely related to the feeling of loss of control. We are afraid because we cannot predict the results and we lose control of the situation. But we must accept that life always involves some degree of uncertainty. The more comfortable we are with uncertainty, the more our fear of the unknown will be reduced.

To learn how to navigate uncertainty, you need to practice. Good exercise is getting out of your comfort zone often. It is about trying new experiences to overcome the fear of the unknown. Dare to try things that make us feel relatively uncomfortable just because we don't know them or don't fully control them. Thus overcoming our resistance to change and getting used to facing unknown scenarios.


5. Take fear as an opportunity for growth

Fear is not our enemy. The more we try to hide or fight it, the bigger and more powerful it will become. After all, we don't have to fight the fear of the unknown, the "fight" is with ourselves, with our vision of things and our way of dealing with them.

Fear, whatever it is, is an opportunity for growth. He is a teacher who presents us with a challenge to dare to do those things that can help us expand our limits. Only when we do what we fear can we free ourselves from its influence.

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