This article first appeared on Happify
It’s no news that fear is our most self-protective emotion. To ensure our survival, it can disguise itself as intuition, color our judgment, and make us obsess about the potential dangers in our lives.
And yet, we all know that these dangers exist far more often in our perception than in reality. We avoid important conversations for fear they’ll turn into mini-catastrophes. We stay within our comfort zones so we never have to face the pain of failure. And we close down or viciously shed blame when we receive negative feedback because we believe it signals the ultimate threat of rejection.
There’s not a lot we can do to change this biological mechanism of fight or flight that took millions of years to perfect its game. But there’s much we can do to shift from a fear-based life to one that’s open to the magical moments and infinite possibilities that surround us.
One great way of doing so is changing what Stanford University psychology professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo calls our “time perspective.” His research has found that the ability to switch time perspectives is one of the greatest mental tools we have to live our life to its fullest. When we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the negative events of our past, we reinforce the pathways of doom and despair. This is partly why rumination is so addictive—it begins to run on automatic. And given that remembering the past and imagining the future both involve many common neural regions, gloomy or frightening memories can easily lead to catastrophic predictions of the future. Voilà—the basis of perceived fear.
If you’d like to live life with greater awareness of when fear is a friend and when it’s a little child throwing an unreasonable tantrum, don’t wait for the moment of panic to make a decision. Instead, change how you relate to your past, and your understanding of your fears may become just a little more realistic.
Key #1: Savor the Past
Our brains need to be efficient in what they store as memory and what they dismiss. This is because there’s a benefit to retaining information about the past that has predictive value for future survival, but an energy cost in hanging on to memories that function merely as nostalgia. However, we’ll need to tweak this built-in mechanism that favors the negative over the positive by spending more time reflecting on what went well in our lives. Savoring can be done alone, perhaps in the silence of the night as you reflect on your day. You may even want to note down your reflections in a journal. Or the savoring can be done with friends as you share your good news, which has the added benefit of feeling connected with others.
Key #2: Learn from the Past
We’re certainly wired to learn and grow. But we’re also wired to avoid pain and approach pleasure. This means that we often don’t spend time analyzing negative events from our past, preferring to give them an explanation that ties in with our beliefs, as this is easiest to do. What we forget is that these negative events often hold some of the greatest lessons we’ll learn about life, and can be the tipping points that change long-held faulty beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. For example, regrets about a past situation can motivate us to step out of our comfort zone and make changes in our future. Guilt about past behaviors can urge us to look inward and change the way we relate to others.
Ideally, we need to find the right balance of mental time that works best in our current situation. Why? Because life is always changing, and no two situations are the same. A long time ago, when I was expecting my twins and admitted to the hospital at 22 weeks with premature labor pains, I learned to spend most of my mental time in positive visualization of the future. To this day, I believe it was imagining my healthy twins by my side that got me through the tumultuous 14 weeks that finally led to their healthy delivery.
If you often let your fears keep you from fully engaging with life, take a moment to do a mental time inventory. Where do your thoughts tend to gravitate? If you consistently ruminate about the negative events of your past, step away and change course. Because why spend this one precious life enslaved by fears that are a mere figment of your imagination?