Mind & Body

Use the RIA Method to Control Your Fears

Fear is a destructive thing. Sure, it exists to keep you out of harm's way, but when it kicks in during a public speech, a first date, or that moment you're about to hit "submit" on a job application, it's not exactly beneficial. The next time you feel afraid, take the advice of fear researcher Mary Poffenroth and think "RIA."

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I Ain't Afraid of No Toast

Fear isn't just the feeling you get when you stand on the edge of a cliff or stare down a hungry mountain lion. On the fantastic Ologies podcast, Poffenroth explained that fears come in two main forms: factual and fictional. Factual fear comes from an actual threat to your life: a burglar breaks into your home, a car is hurtling toward you, or that mountain lion approaches you in the woods, for example.

Fictional fear, on the other hand, is based in truth but mostly made up in your head: you're afraid you'll stumble on your words during the big wedding toast and everyone will laugh, you won't be able to get the project done in time and you'll be fired, or your partner will find someone else and leave you. This flavor of fear can be split into its own two categories: the fear that you're not enough, or the fear that you don't have control. Feeling insecure? Overwhelmed? Stressed? Inadequate? Those are all just words for fear.

The problem is that your brain's emotion center, known as the amygdala, reacts the same way to those fictional fears as it does to factual fears: by shutting down non-essential systems like digestion and libido to ensure you can get out of there alive. But if you spend every day stressed or insecure, you're putting your body in a constant fear response. "That's what I really focus on," Poffenroth explained. "How we can change our story with our fictional fears so they aren't firing up the amygdala so much and we aren't going into this full stress response."

The RIA Method

RIA stands for recognize, identify, address. In other words, recognize that you're afraid, identify the fear, and then find a way to cope.

Recognize: Get a sense of how you're feeling. Is your heart beating fast? Are you feeling hot, or breaking out in a cold sweat? Is your mouth dry, or are you feeling some digestive discomfort? These are all symptoms of a fear response, and this first step simply involves acknowledging that: something is happening in your body that suggests you're afraid.

Identify: "Name it to claim it," says Poffenroth. Like Beetlejuice, Rumplestiltskin, or Voldemort, naming something can give you power over it. Okay, you're afraid. Is this a factual or fictional fear? If it's fictional, does it come from feeling like you're not enough or like you've lost control?

"When you start to name it, sometimes that can just short circuit the fear response in and of itself," she says. In fact, Poffenroth says that you can often just stop here, since simply recognizing that something is going on and identifying what it is can be enough to calm you down. "It also makes us feel not so alone," she points out. "It's just our human body being a human body. It's not, like, what we would consider ourselves. It's our brain doing its brain thing."

Address: If you've done the first two steps and you're still deep in the fear response, it's now time to address the fear. If it's a factual fear, this is obviously the point when you should take steps to protect yourself. If it's a fictional fear, however, there are a number of strategies you can use to overcome it.

If all you need is to calm your fear response, try box breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, repeat as needed. But to get to the root of the problem, it's essential to face your fear. If you're feeling insecure in your relationship, talk to your partner about it. If you're afraid you'll bomb your speech, identify the very worst thing that could happen — you'll likely realize it's not that bad. If you feel like you can't get a project done on deadline, make a list of your to-dos and see what can be put on hold, what can be delegated to others, and what can be abandoned completely.

Most importantly, don't ignore it. If you pretend your fear doesn't exist, your body will keep fighting it with or without you and cause more problems down the line.

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For more ways to cope with fear, check out "Mastering Fear: A Navy SEAL's Guide" by New York Times bestselling authors Brandon Webb and John David Mann. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Mary Poffenroth: The Myth of Fearlessness

Written by Ashley Hamer October 4, 2018

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