Don’t Let Fear Stop You From Living The Life You Most Desire

understanding anxiety

“Don’t let fear stop you.”  You’re probably familiar with this common wisdom and its call to action on behalf of your greatest dreams.

You probably also have amazing visions of what you’d like to accomplish during your life, places you’d like to visit, and impacts you’d like to make. Yet despite the beauty of your dreams and your familiarity with this common wisdom you may feel that there’s still something holding you back.

For many of us, what’s holding us back is fear. It may not be the in-your-face kind of fear, but it’s still fear – fear of not achieving your dreams, fear of what it might take to reach them, and of course, fear of failure.

If you’re struggling with fear of failure, understanding the biological and physiological responses to fear can help demystify it. This knowledge can also bring you one step closer to following the guidance of “don’t let fear stop you.”

The autonomic nervous system regulates our bodies by activating and suppressing certain bodily functions in response to our needs. It is divided in two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which acts as the “accelerator,” and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which acts as the “brakes.”

The SNS is activated by the amygdala when we experience a threat, including stress or fear. This activation results in the fight-or-flight, or threat, response.

When our threat response fires, many different physiological responses occur.

  • An increased heart rate assures efficient delivery of needed oxygen and nutrients to muscles and the brain.
  • Shallow breathing allows for an abundance of needed oxygen.
  • Vasopressin triggers conservation of the body’s water supply allowing the body to regulate temperature and metabolism.
  • Norepinephrine heightens needed focus and attention.
  • Oxytocin orients us toward connection with others.

Our physiological threat response is an impressively complicated biological feat that readies us for protective action.

Not all fears activate our threat response to the same level. And, everyone’s threat response is different; so how your body responds to a fear of failure will be unique to you.

However, despite its reputation for holding us back, fear of failure and its associated anxiety can operate as a type of fuel. Founder and director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, David Barlow, calls anxiety “an ambassador of responsibility, nudging you to taking care of things that you need to take care of.”

Think about it for a second: What would life be like, and how would we get by, without that motivation that fear provides?

While fear of failure can be a paralyzing force, sometimes it can provide the push we need.
~Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Don’t Let Fear Stop You: How To Harness The Power Inherent In The Fear Of Failure

When we embark on a new beginning – a project, a writing assignment, or even just returning to the gym after a long time away – we tend to have little to no momentum. We often need a boost to get going, and this can sometimes exacerbate our fear of failure.

Fear of failure in turn grabs our attention nudging us to take that first step, and reach for our dreams. If we’re not moving toward our goals, we’re not living the life we most desire. And if we’re not taking action, fear of failure can increase. It’s like a warning system that activates when motivation and energy toward important goals dip below optimal levels, making sure we take notice.

To harness your fear of failure to propel you forward instead of paralyzing you, you can use one or more of the following three techniques.

  1. Sink your ships.

Most people have plan B’s when they’re reaching for a goal (especially a big goal) or attempting to do something they’ve not done before. On the surface, it seems like a good strategy.

Scientist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, however, argues against the idea of a backup plan or plan B when facing a scary situation. By taking away that safety net, the stakes are raised, and focus and motivation are sharpened.

Think about a child who is terrified when the training wheels come off her bicycle, only to learn that she can balance just fine. The pedaling will keep her from falling.

When we’re challenged to do something, we can embrace the inherent anxiety of the task. And this challenge anxiety can provide us the jolt of motivation we sometimes need to push ahead.

Phingbodhipakkiyareferences a studythat determines “the more negative emotions you anticipate feeling if you fail to reach your goal, the more driven you might be to achieve it.”

When we can get comfortable working without a backup plan, it hyper-focuses our minds and bodies, motivates us to find and execute solutions, and keeps us performing optimally. In other words, we can heed the advice: don’t let fear stop you; instead let is push you.

  1. Actively cope with fear.

Fear is a powerful and unrelenting energy source. It can deliver needed resources to drive productive actions, and taking action almost always delivers a needed sense of control.

Proactive coping helps moderate the amygdala response and involve more of our brain. By actively engaging our thinking, we engage our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that also plans, directs and ultimately quiets the amygdala.

By shifting our thoughts to planning and action steps, we begin to conquer our fear. Research has shown that the dissipation of fear comes not just with the carrying out of action, but even just the startingof it.

The very decision to take the action can be incredibly helpful. Sometimes the action to take is obvious. Sometimes it’s not. Fortunately, considering possible solutions and planning action or creating a checklist are also ways of taking action.

  1. Become curious.

Persistence is required to live the life you most desire. It helps you work toward your dreams, and has been recently shown to protect against anxiety and mood disorders.

Christine Carter, author of The Sweet Spot, suggests that persistence at anything has to begin with curiosity and joy and be maintained by routine, or what she calls a groove.

Yet, when we start to feel too much fear of failure, our persistence can be tough to maintain.  When we start to feel the anxiety of failing, and become bogged down, it can help to return to our interest and curiosity.

When energy wanes, it can help to focus on what’s interesting and enjoyable in a task, even if what’s enjoyable is simply getting it done.

Research shows effort that is purposeful, and aligned with what we care about most, can be integral to finding the success and happiness we crave. It is in the doing where we assert ourselves and take control over our fear. Using our fear as energy to take action is how we purposefully heed the adage “don’t let fear stop you”and allow ourselves to live the life we most desire.


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Photo by Pricilla Du Preez for Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD