Last night, Cody and I watched the Portland Timbers battle to a scoreless draw with the New England Revolution. Really, though, the soccer match was just an excuse for two friends to hang out for a few hours. We had a good time talking about life: about fitness (Cody is my Crossfit trainer), writing, relationships…and fear.

I told Cody how productive I’ve been since I started taking my ADHD meds a week ago. “It’s amazing how much I can get done in a day,” I told him. “I’m able to focus. I have no anxiety. I’m able to get started on stuff without being distracted. I don’t let myself get sidetracked by tiny little fears.”

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about fear,” Cody told me. He knows it’s a pet subject of mine. Plus, I’ve been struggling in the gym since I returned from Europe. Lifts that should be easy for me are proving tough. I even dropped the bar last week, and the bar only had 165 pounds on it.

“I’ve noticed something about people who are learning to lift,” Cody said. “When you start lifting and you get near max efforts” — max efforts are lifts where you’re lifting the most you possibly can — “there’s a fear of getting under the bar. You’re afraid that you’ll drop it, or that you’ll hurt yourself.”

I nodded. I experience this all the time. I just experienced it yesterday while attempting the deadlift. My max deadlift is 345 pounds, but yesterday I was struggling at 275. When it came time to lift 315, I couldn’t do it, partially because I was afraid.

“I get afraid too,” Cody said. “Or I used to. When you do a lift, there’s this moment where you just stop thinking. You have to do the lift, and that means taking an action you’re afraid to do. In order to do that, you have to turn your brain off. It’s when beginners turn their brains off that they’re able to overcome their fear of lifting.”

“Well, instead of waiting for the moment when I’m no longer afraid — a moment that might not ever come if I keep thinking about it — I’ve learned to force myself to not think about it. I think this is key. Thought creates fear; action kills it.

“I love that idea,” I said. “It reminds me of what I had to do when I went skydiving. I hate heights. And jumping out of an airplane scared me shitless. In order to go through with it, I had to turn my brain off.”

“Right,” Cody said. “You leapt without thought. And in weightlifting, you have to get under the bar without thought. When trying new foods, you have to eat without thought. And so on. You have to reach a point where you’re no longer thinking, you’re only acting.

As I was falling asleep last night, I thought more about this notion: Thought creates fear; action kills it. It’s not a new idea, but it’s an important one. In his classic The Magic of Thinking Big — the book that’s the inspiration for my upcoming talks and ebook on overcoming fear — David J. Schwartz writes:

Action cures fear. Indecision, postponement, on the other hand, fertilize fear…When we face tough problems, we stay mired in the mud until we take action. Hope is a start. But hope needs action to win victories.

Schwartz proposes a two-step plan to cure fear and win confidence:

  1. Isolate your fear. Determine exactly what it is that scares you.
  2. Take action. Figure out what action will counter your fear.

“Hesitation only enlarges, magnifies the fear,” he writes. “Take action promptly. Be decisive.”

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Overcoming fear takes practice. Being decisive takes practice. You need to practice taking action. But from my experience, action is the antidote to fear. If fear is the mind-killer, action is the fear-killer.

What have you been putting off because you’re afraid? What action can you take today to overcome that fear?

17 Replies to “Action Kills Fear”

  1. This is something I’ve dealt with for most of my life through surfing. When you’re trying to catch a big wave there’s a point just before you stand up, when you’re paddling, and you’re basically balanced just on top of the peak of the wave, and one more stroke will push your board down the face where you can jump to your feet. At that point, you’re leaned forward at the top of a heaving wall of water two or three stories high, and it looks like a cliff, but not just a regular cliff, a moving cliff that wants to bury you under tons of frothy water. And you’re real tempted to stop, to push back, and to let that wave roll under you without catching it. You really have to force that last stroke and the jump to your feet. The steeper the wave, the harder it is.

    But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Partially because you know you can do it, and partially because you know that even if you fall (because sometimes, you will fall), you’ll end up ok. A bit out of breath and in need of a break, maybe, but ok.

    Except for that one time I broke my leg surfing, but hey, that healed too.

    • Eileen says:

      My sister described skiing deep powder the same way. She was an experienced skier and was told “just do it” kind of thing. She said that when she finally realized she was at the top of a mountain and the only way down was to ski it, was when it became easier. She made the decision to do it. I guess that can be described as “turning off your brain”, but it still seems to me that your brain thinks through the possible outcomes, how important the goal is, and when it makes the decision to proceed, it becomes focused on the task (and has moved on from the decision making).

      I guess I can get on board with the idea that we sometimes “overthink” things, but I still think that action provides us with experience that makes the decision to act easier. New crossfitters would eventually feel comfortable enough to act. But that comes from experience. It’s not like someone can walk in on day 1 and act….and they shouldn’t.

  2. dan says:

    I learned that principle from “Feel the Fear…And Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. It’s a great book, but the core premise is that fear will always be there and the only way to overcome it is to take action.

  3. Eileen says:

    Interesting. I guess I just think when you and your mind makes the decision to go from “should I?” to “action”, you’re just making the next logical step, which is to complete the action as correctly/safely/wisely as possible and you need your brain power (along with the physical) to be focused on that.

    Experience (action) builds up the confidence to make the decision to act….again.

  4. JanS says:

    I can so relate to what you are going through, J.D. This is exactly what I’ve been dealing with in my attempts to get better at (indoor) rock climbing. There is a point at which you are afraid to move to the next higher point and the longer you linger there, in fear, the more tired you get and the bigger the hole in the pit of your stomach becomes. Once I commit to a move and do it successfully, I always think: “What exactly was I afraid of? That was so easy.”

    I wish my brain would remember those small moments of exhilaration more vividly, but there is always some new fear to conquer, one more new move and lesson to learn. That’s the challenge, and the fun.

  5. bethh says:

    This reminds me of some of my experiences learning to scuba dive. In my case it wasn’t so much turning off my brain, but acknowledging the fear and talking myself through it. The two hardest times were when I was getting open-water certified off of Monterey, and just a few weeks ago when I went on my first deep (100 feet) dive off Oahu. I was scared and borderline freaking out, but the important thing is that I stayed on the calm side of the panic line. Yeah, I burned through my air a bit faster than I should have, and I could barely hear the whales singing over my gasps, but I did it, and the next one will be easier.

    I feel like that ability to recognize and push through fear is a muscle we lose. I’ve kept it in shape somewhat by doing things that are challenging (signing up for long bike rides, moving to a new city), but it does get weak again. I feel awesome every time I push through though!

  6. Sandy E. says:

    I made a deal with myself many years ago that I wasn’t going to let fear of any kind immobilize me from doing something that I had to do or that I wanted to do. My solution? walk-through-it, even while I was scared witless. So action? I agree. He who hesitates is lost. Back then there were things I wanted to do, but couldn’t because fear raised its ugly head. I was stuck. I was frustrated, then I got mad, mad at fear and decided to confront it, each and every time it got in my way!! Easy? No. But movement works.

  7. I love this. But I think it’s more than just action. I think it’s trust—trust in yourself, trust in your relationships, etc. When you trust that the support systems you’ve built will work when you need them, action becomes easier to stomach. And when the action kills the fear, more action becomes easier, it becomes a habit.

  8. Cely says:

    I was just talking about this with someone who had to give a big presentation in front of his company. I read once that your brain can’t distinguish between real activity and imagined activity, so if your fear translates into imagining the worst case scenario, your brain is “living” that over and over — so of course it paralyzes you. If you can imagine the best outcome instead, and actually visualize yourself successfully doing whatever it is you’re considering, you can calm your brain down and help yourself past the fear. Sports psychologists use this method for professional athletes, to prep them for high-pressure situations.

  9. Somsiah says:

    Ironic as it is, I’ve developed a fear of flying since my husband passed on nine years ago. I got sweaty, sickened feeling to my stomach every time. I discovered my son who had been on planes since his infant years (countless flights) also developed a fear of flying about the same time I did. Perhaps it was triggered by a loss of a loved one. But we did it anyway. Both mum and son had a long talk after the first traumatic plane right. We concluded we die anyway – that there is so much more living we could have by doing stuffs than doing nothing.

  10. chewy says:

    I am not a lifter or much of a gym rat, but I can understand the fear that you are talking about. I think it boils down to a basic fear that most people have of not being able to do it or not being good enough. I’m also wondering whether I’m getting more risk averse or safety-minded as I get older, and maybe that is because I’m thinking too much. I’ll have to stop thinking so hard and just do things!

  11. dh says:

    JD, the truth is that almost ALL thinking is unnecessary. This realization, and the practice of not thinking, is enlightenment. Here’s a video I sent you a while back but felt the need to send again:

  12. Valerie says:

    I know this feeling, not from anything crazy like skydiving or scuba or skiing, but from making phone calls. I’ve never liked doing it, I always try to think through the conversation before I make the call, and then I sit there staring at the phone for a really long time before working up the courage to press Send.

    This small fear was magnified almost into a phobia when I took an insurance job that involved cold calling. I only lasted a few months, but those memories of sitting in a cold office, heart racing, trying to work up the courage to make those terrible calls instilled a long-term fear in me. Four years later I’m finally to the point where I can make phone calls and only shake a little, and I’ve gotten there by just forcing myself to do it, over and over again.

    • Nicole says:

      Oh, god, Valerie, you are not alone….I’m the same way! I have to make sure I have every scrap of info I MIGHT need, and even then, I usually have to sort of surprise myself…I kind of wait until I’ve “forgotten” about making then call, and then I just do it. I guess that is a variation of turning off my brain.

      Anyway, hang in there. It gets easier, but like someone else said, you have to keep doing it or you lose the progress you’ve made. It is so great that you’ve gotten to the point you have with it!

  13. Malva says:

    I started reading fiction again recently and picked up Divergent/Insurgent by Veronica Roth. The books being labeled a YA dystopia, I thought I was getting in a light read and although it may seem that way at first glance, it isn’t. To me anyway, it reads as a discussion on fears and overcoming/acting in spite of them and how you need bravery in the little moments of life too.

    That’s the way I read it anyway, I must need to be braver in my life.

  14. Deborah says:

    An alterative viewpoint here. Fear is a necessary emotion. It enhances our survival chances by recognizing danger and reacting to it. It’s when we become frozen into inaction because of exaggerated or irrational fears that it becomes a problem. I think there is valid reason for you to be fearful of lifting an extremely heavy weight, especially with the knowledge that failure could injure you severely. That’s what a good spotter is for. Are you lifting without one? REALLY bad idea.

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