Most of us are afraid of something, whether it's failure, commitment, public speaking, or simply breaking out of our comfort zone. But more often than not, the fears that trap us and hold us back are rooted not so much in reality, but in the stories we tell ourselves, says Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL and the author of the new book, Mastering Fear: A Navy SEAL’s Guide (Portfolio, August 2018).
“We literally build a mental case for ourselves in our heads that in most cases is not true,” says Webb. “Fear is no illusion. Fear is real. But, far too often, we focus on that awareness of danger, and by focusing on it, we magnify it, causing it to expand until it starts filling the space in our heads." The result? "Rather than our mastering fear, fear masters us," he says.
However, certain practices, including yoga and meditation, can help us "flip the switch" and see fear as a friend rather than a foe. For Webb, his daily yoga practice has enabled him to cope with the stress of combat, losing many friends, and healing from a debilitating back injury from a SEAL Team skydiving accident.
"Focus, breathing, and meditation have helped me overcome my fear of transitioning back to life outside the military, given me the structure I was missing since leaving the SEAL Teams, and helped me focus on my business and writing,” he says.
The next time you're feeling weak, afraid, or powerless, here are Webb's 7 top tips to help you find the courage to surpass whatever might be holding you back, so you can move toward new opportunities and experiences.
Ex-Navy SEAL's 7 Top Tips for Overcoming Fear
1. Think Positive, and Make Fear Your Ally
The ability to self-monitor and redirect your interior dialogue is what takes you from a victim mentality to a proactive mindset, or from blaming others to taking ownership of your situation—and taking positive steps to change it. It takes you from being at the mercy of circumstance to being the master of circumstance. It is what allows you to master fear.
The next time you experience true fear or anxiety about whatever shark is swimming your way—that big bill that's due soon, an important meeting, a difficult conversation—don’t waste time or energy trying to stop or evade the fear. Instead, use it. Embrace it. Make it your ally. Rather than telling yourself, “I am not worried,” ask yourself, “How can I use this static charge to sharpen myself?" Take a deep breath, then another. The challenge is real, not false, but it is its own size, and no larger, and you are up to the task. You’ve got this.
2. Trust Your Gut, and Don't Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Decisions aren’t made in the head—they’re made in the gut. The gut is where your intuition resides, deep down inside. And for too many of us, that voice isn't always easy to hear. The only way to build your intuition and to make its voice pipe up is by exercising it. Know that you might not get it right every time. This is a good thing. Nobody likes making mistakes, but they teach you how to better hear that quiet, intuitive voice that lives in you.
3. Rehearse for Adversity
Navy SEALs are taught to mentally rehearse for adversity, because if you rehearse something fear-inducing in your mind, when it actually happens, it doesn't seem so scary. I do a lot of public speaking, and I often close my eyes and imagine myself going through the first 30 seconds with the audience. I also imagine some worst-case scenarios, like a heckler, and rehearse some contingencies, which makes it much easier to avoid stage fright.
I remember listening to a story about Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. His goggles flooded during an Olympic competition; however, he had mentally rehearsed this happening before and had a contingency plan already in place. So when it happened, he already knew what to do. He counted his strokes to determine when he should do his flip turn, which he performed flawlessly, and went on to set a world record in the process.
4. Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone, but Not Too Far
You’ll never get anywhere by simply staying in your comfort zone. I learned this in BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training). BUD/S is a months-long grueling selection process involving a "Hell Week" where you go almost a week with just a few hours of sleep. It's brutal and has a high dropout rate. I learned quickly, after the best athlete quit one morning, that it was a mental game, not physical. Out of 220 guys, I was probably in the worst physical shape of the bunch, but I pushed through it. The point of this training is to stretch your comfort zone so that you can tolerate your circumstances with equanimity, even under the most extreme conditions. Just like in yoga, the goal is not for you to push yourself too far physically, but to take yourself right up to the edge mentally. Beyond that push point, whatever you’re doing becomes counterproductive. Yet if you fall short of that point, you’re not challenging yourself enough.
5. Understand That Safety Is an Illusion
If you think you can achieve and maintain genuine safety, then you’ll never risk anything—and you’ll never really live. Once you understand that complete safety will forever be out of your reach, it frees you to embrace those risks that are worth it, and to do so with passion and abandon.
6. When Opportunity Comes, Grab It
Sometimes, when an opportunity comes our way, we blow the chance to jump on it because we feel we're not ready, or not prepared enough. This is something we saw again and again in the sniper course when I was a Navy SEAL. Some guys would lie there forever, prepping and prepping—and never take that shot.
Don’t miss out on what could be the greatest experiences and opportunities of your life because you feel you’re not ready. Ready doesn't mean you’ve removed all uncertainty. Ready means you’ve suited up and mounted your horse, and now it’s time to ride.
7. Define What Matters to You
There are only two things we know for sure: We’re alive, right here, right now; and at some point, this is all going to end. We cannot afford to waste a single hour. To gain mastery of our lives, we need to treat each hour as if it’s the only one we have left. Ask yourself, "What really matters to me, and what would I do differently if fear weren't holding me back?" Then, start implementing those changes right now.
About the Author
Erika Prafder is a veteran writer for The New York Post and the author of a book on entrepreneurship. A longtime yoga enthusiast and Hatha yoga teacher, she edits kidsyogadaily.com, a news source for young yogis. She recently co-founded drawingboardshop.com, an e-commerce and content site celebrating life's gifts and creative entrepreneurship. The working mother of three lives on Long Island, New York.