A representation of an irrational fear, a shark in a swimming pool

Some of the things, people, and events we encounter bring about a real reason to be fearful for our safety. Other times though, we have what are called irrational fears, that still feel very real to us in the moment, but aren’t actually as dangerous as we think they are. Understanding what an irrational fear is, and learning how to overcome it, was a process for me, but one that was worth it. Doing so helped me to feel safe doing the things I’ve always enjoyed doing, but was too afraid to do for a while.

I want to share what has helped me over the years, and also to give you a few tools that you can use in the moment, to help you while you’re going through the inner work of removing these fears for good. Telling yourself to “just get over it”, or saying things like “I’m being stupid, childish, silly”, etc. doesn’t help. Having others tell you to “just push through it”, doesn’t help.

You need to learn 1) where your fears come from (not the exact time, date, and moment per se, but whether it’s brought on more by stressful situations, dealing with certain people, certain times in your life, or things like that), 2) how they feel in your body (literally where do you feel these fears in your body), and 3) have practices in place to comfort yourself during the scary moments.

First let’s define what an “irrational fear” is.

An irrational fear is a fear of something that makes no logical sense. For instance, one that I had growing up, is a fear of a shark being in a swimming pool. I found out later in life that a lot of people actually have this fear. It’s quite common in people who had dysfunctional childhoods (which most of us did in one way or another).

Is it possible that a shark could be in a swimming pool? Yes. It’s slightly possible.

But…when we actually sort it out: sharks couldn’t live in the chlorinated water and they wouldn’t thrive in such a small space. And the sharks that most of us imagine in this scenario are not small creatures, so if there was one in the pool, we would most definitely see it before we ever get in.

Our minds however, ignore all of this and fear going into a pool because there could be a giant shark in it.

This is an irrational fear.

It’s something that you know isn’t possible, or isn’t very likely, but the fear of it happening still disrupts how you live in some way. These feel like very real fears, and they are until you work through and release them, but they aren’t actually life or death, or physically threatening on their own.

What’s interesting about this though, is that our fight or flight response can be triggered by something that we PERCEIVE as a threat to our well-being, whether it really is or not.

As an example, if we have a fear of heights, even if we aren’t in any real danger of falling, if we think we could fall, our bodies react the same way they would if we actually could fall. “Danger! Move away! Get to the lowest possible point!”

Going one step further, even when we think about being above a certain height, our body has the same reaction it would if we were standing somewhere high up – like at the top of a lighthouse. Though we’re standing safely on the ground, or sitting on our couch, the very idea of heights can cause our pulse to race, our stomach to flip, and our muscles to tense protectively.

And because we’re human, and we want to avoid things that are uncomfortable in any way, we shut down to any opportunity that involves, or may involve, what we fear.

The trouble comes when this starts to get in the way of daily life, or of having experiences that can greatly enhance our lives.

The good news is, that these emotions we often view as “negative” can actually be very beneficial in pointing us towards healing.

If irrational fears keep coming up for us, especially if it’s the same one or the same type over and over again, taking a deeper look at why can help us break free of them.

If we’re trying to just shove these fears down, or tell ourselves that we’re being silly for having them, then we’re missing out on the opportunity to release them entirely. Not only that, we’re keeping that energy bottled up inside of us, and creating a playground for all sorts of problems mentally and physically.

But, if we begin to see our fears as a teacher, rather than something that is out to get us, it makes it less scary.

We can begin to face these fears, knowing that they are temporary. Then, when we’ve learned what we need to in the moment, that teacher moves on.

I imagine it like this…a shark in the pool was a terrifying image for me for years. That image became a dark cloud that hovered over me and kept me from doing something that I enjoyed. Through talking to a therapist, and realizing that it was an irrational fear, and why it was coming up, it softened it a little. Then, as I worked through more of that dysfunction in my past, those fears slip away more and more.

All of this led up to my being at an aquarium for a party one time, and having the opportunity to actually touch a small shark. It was a miniature version of the physical reality of my fear – a shark filling an entire tank of water. BUT, because there were people there who were trained, who knew how to safely make sure that the shark didn’t hurt me, and I didn’t hurt it, I was able to touch it.

I only mention this event because seeing that shark in person, touching it, and learning more about it helped me to finally get over this fear of a shark being in a swimming pool. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done all of the inner work first, but it was one more step that I needed to take that led to healing this irrational fear that I had carried for years.

Just trying to shove those fears down, and pretend we don’t have them, doesn’t work…not long term at least. What does help is digging into those fears and working with people who can help you overcome them for good. It’s not always easy, to talk about what is behind the fear, but if it gives you the ability to enjoy your life again in every way possible…it’s worth it.

There are also a few practices that I did to help support the work I was doing with my therapist. Maybe you can use these tools as well.

1. Doing Qigong, or some other form of movement, or somatic exercise to help find where I was storing the fear and stress in my body, and to release the trapped energy and emotions.

For me, I tend to hold fear in my stomach, my shoulders, and my chest. Imagine what you do when you’re afraid – you curl inward, you try to make yourself smaller to protect you from whatever you’re afraid of. Some people feel stiffness in their joints, their heart races, they clench their jaws. It’s different for everybody.

Chris Shelton’s video series – 30 Days of Qigong (free on YouTube) – will help you to discover this for yourself. One of the meditations that Chris takes you through each day is a scan of your entire body. It helps you to learn to recognize and feel the places that you might be holding some of this fear and stress.

Another very helpful thing that he demonstrates in those videos, is shaking it off. It’s literally shaking your body like a dog shakes water off after a bath or a swim. This helps to shake that excess stress energy off and away from your energetic body. It’s a practice that I do multiple times a week; sometimes even multiple times a day if I’m going through something stressful, traveling a lot, or I’ve been around a large group of people.

2. Humming.  

In the moment, it can help to break that automatic fear response that we have, and help us self soothe. Overall, it is a way to regulate our vagus nerve, which works with our fight or flight system and can be overwhelmed when that system gets stuck in the on position.

(To learn more about why humming works, read this post about it, this post about the vagus nerve, and also get my free e-book “25 Simple Ways to Calm Your Nervous System” by signing up for my emails.)

3. Write a word over and over and over again.

You know how, when you write, or type, a word many times over, it starts to look like you’ve spelled it wrong? This takes the same theory and expands it. If you write the word “fear” or “shark” for example, over and over again, symbolically, it begins to lose its power. The word becomes just a word.

I’ve done this practice many times, and it works really well. It doesn’t solve everything, and you still have to do the inner work to release what is causing the fear in the first place, but it’s a great place to start.

4. Free Writing.

If you start out by writing a word that represents what you’re afraid of over and over again, you can use that as a spring board to dive into why you’re having this fear in the first place. 

Free writing is the perfect way to do this because it allows you to just pour words out onto the page, without trying to make sense of them, without correcting any spelling or grammar issues, and without really thinking too hard about what you’re writing.

This was something that I had done for a while (and still do quite often when I need to process something I don’t quite understand), but it also became a tool that my therapist could use to help me work through things. It helped her to pinpoint some of the places I kept getting tripped up.

(To learn more about what free writing is and how to do it, read this.)

5. The easiest way that I have found to break the automatic fear response in the moment is to remind myself that I am safe through mantras or affirmations.

Having a word, or a phrase, that you can say in the moment to remind your brain that you aren’t in any real danger, helps tremendously. It seems way too easy, but it has worked for me multiple times over.

You can start with saying, “I am safe”, and branch out from there based on your unique situation. I have several more listed here.