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  • Amy Travis

Buckle Up

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

The Key to Overcoming Irrational Fear

The older my father got, the more he enjoyed taking risks. He was still playing competitive softball in his late sixties until his body would no longer cooperate. I remember taking him to the emergency room when he was sixty-five, because he had ruptured his Achilles tendon during a game. But he wasn’t willing to even go to the hospital until after his workout the next day. It was a gym day, and he didn’t miss the gym for anything. We came to understand that Dad was more afraid of becoming old and sick than he was of dying. He told us that he wanted to “die with his boots on." His fear of slowing down as he got older drove him to do things that seemed reckless to others.

My family adopted Dad’s mantra of “Live until you die.” The implication was that playing it safe by not taking risks wasn’t really living at all. As a result, no one in our immediate family would ever question the decision to buy a motorcycle, join the military, or travel across the world. (But yes, other people think we are crazy.) When making big life choices, or smaller, more common selections, our first question is rarely, Is it really safe? We never used this as a license to be careless, but making choices based on the lack of risk just wasn’t the top consideration in the decision-making matrix. My father’s fear of not-living-while-he-was-still-alive was passed on to the rest of us.

Fear isn’t just limited to concern about physical harm. Some people are fearful about almost everything. We all know people who worry if they have enough money, or if someone is mad at them, or about the weather or what they should wear, and the list goes on. In fact, these people aren’t happy unless they have something to worry about. On the other side, however, are those who seem to take unwarranted risks. They will pack up their belongings and move across the country without having a plan. These are the ones that are asked rhetorically, What were you thinking?

In the same way that guilt serves a purpose in the human experience, so does fear. Fear should cause us to assess the risks, without rendering us paralyzed by that fear. We’ve all heard the expression, “No risk, no reward.” But not all risks are worth taking. Is there a way to tell good risks from bad ones? I think it’s important to separate our fears into two categories: rational and irrational. Rational fear keeps us from doing anything stupid; irrational fear prevents us from doing anything useful. Healthy people allow fear to intervene, but not interfere.

Assessing Risk

In order to tell the difference between rational and irrational fear, we need to conduct a risk assessment. The risk matrix was first developed by NASA in 2009 and has been used extensively by various people and organizations from the Department of Defense to farmers.[i] The matrix considers both the impact (minor, moderate, significant, or severe) and the likelihood (low, medium, or high) in order to calculate a score to be used in decision-making. I found this very useful when I worked in the safety department of a construction company. Before deciding on how much time and resources we were willing to invest in a safety system or program, we would evaluate the potential consequences. For example, since the threat of being struck by lightning while on a jobsite is relatively low, it would not warrant an expensive and elaborate solution. But the threat of electrical shock from using extension cords plugged into ungrounded sources was relatively high and the solution was inexpensive; it warranted our attention. I’ve included an example of a risk matrix below [CC1] for your reference.[ii]

This is an excellent tool that can be adapted to analyze complex situations in order to make a rational decision. But unless you are an engineer or a physicist, you may not need to analytically evaluate every decision to this extent in your day-to-day lives. So instead I’ve provided some simple questions to help us decide if our fear is rational or irrational, and the potential risks to our physical and emotional well-being. Asking these questions will help you to understand if the risk is real or perceived, how to lessen the risk, and evaluate whether the benefits could potentially outweigh the dangers.

1. Is my fear based on facts and experience or feelings and perceptions?

Sometimes there is no threat posed to our well-being at all, but because an activity is new to us it seems threatening. I would dare say that many who are afraid to fly fall into this category. Unless they have survived a plane crash, their fear is not rooted in personal experience.

I’ll admit, flying commercial airlines is not my favorite thing to do. On our flight home from Uganda, we had to go through three security checkpoints while inside the airport prior to boarding a connecting flight. That’s right, we never stepped outside of the terminal but still were subject to three separate security checks after a five-hour flight, and prior to boarding another one scheduled to be in the air for another fourteen hours. As annoying as it was, it alleviated any fear that our plane could be hijacked. If my bottle of water that I purchased in the terminal couldn’t make it through security, I was confident that bad guys couldn’t either.

I am not afraid to fly. I may not like to fly, but it’s not healthy or advantageous for me to base my fears on my feeling rather than facts. The fact of the matter is that flying is the safest mode of transportation. The odds of dying in a plane crash are eleven million to one. My chance of dying in a car or traffic accident, however, is significantly greater at one in five thousand. In fact, it is more likely that I could be killed by a falling coconut than in a plane crash.[iii]

The argument against the fear of flying is one of the simplest illustrations to cite, but I challenge you to ask this question in evaluating every fear. Some fears are very legitimate; they are based on facts and should be taken seriously. For example, you may have a fear of being electrocuted while using a hair dryer while taking a bath. That’s a valid fear.

Is your fear based on legitimate facts and information, or is it more of a preference? My mother-in-law told me recently that she was allergic to dogs. I was surprised to find that out now after knowing her for over thirty years. After I inquired a little further, she revealed that she wasn’t physically allergic; she didn’t like them. She was mentally allergic, as she put it (ha ha). Sometimes fear is a preference made out of convenience or lack of knowledge, but it’s not in response to a legitimate threat.

2. How can I mitigate the risks?

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I don’t discourage our kids from taking risks. At the same time, we don’t encourage them to blindly engage in high-risk activities such as driving and hunting without requiring them to take every realistic precaution. When our son wanted a crossbow for Christmas last year, for example, we required him to take an online safety course before we would even buy it for him for Christmas. Yes, he needed to take that course before he could get his hunting license, but we insisted that he finish the class before he would even have the opportunity to handle the weapon.

We don’t have to fear situations—even ones that carry inherent risks—but we shouldn’t blindly accept any of those risks either.

3. Does the potential gain outweigh the inherent risks?

This answer to this question may seem simple and clear, but I challenge you to evaluate this constantly, as conditions can change very quickly. For example, many things we do when we’re younger can carry more risk as we get older. Buying a brand-new vehicle on credit has fewer ramifications to a young working professional than a middle-aged single mom who is the primary provider for her three children. Playing in a recreational hockey league out of college is a great way to stay in shape and keep up with the guys. Playing in that same league and risking a serious injury when that guy is forty and self-employed as a contractor with no disability insurance may not be the best move.

I’m all for riding motorcycles. Yes, it’s a risk, but as long as the rider takes reasonable safety measure (such as wearing a helmet, whether the law requires it or not), I don’t see a problem with it…in most situations. There was a certain professional athlete in my hometown who crashed his motorcycle while riding during the season and without a helmet. Risking a multimillion-dollar contract in order to take a joy ride? Most would agree that the potential gain didn’t outweigh the risk. (Many, including me, would even say that was plain dumb.) Sometimes outside factors such as wealth, success, or power can even make us feel that we are immune to risk. We feel untouchable, which ironically makes us more vulnerable. In these situations, there may not be any gain to be had, but our internal risk assessor is broken.

Not all risks or benefits can be measured in terms of just physical safety either. Playing a sport, riding a motorcycle, traveling across the country or world can open new opportunities and contacts that we wouldn’t gain otherwise. I would argue that our life’s goal shouldn’t be to play it safe. What fun is that? New ventures, whether they be starting a new company, enlisting in the military, having another child, or moving to a new neighborhood, can carry significant risks. But without taking those chances, we are destined to live very small, simple lives, and risk missing out on the great adventure that God has been preparing for us since we were born.

4. What is the worst thing that can happen?

I listed this last because it is the most subjective of the questions, but typically this is the first question I ask myself. The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of things I am afraid of that are not legitimate fears. I am afraid of being rejected by a prospective employer, afraid of looking stupid in front of my co-workers, afraid that my ideas will be shot down by my boss, afraid of making my kids mad at me, afraid of appearing insignificant to those more successful than me, and the list goes on. More often than not, when I ask, What is the worst thing that can happen?, the answer is so petty it doesn’t merit my time even considering it.

You may have heard of the now infamous research experiment first conducted in 1968 by Bibb Latane and John Darley. Unsuspecting job applicants were directed to a conference room to complete their applications. Little did they know that the other applicants in the room were paid actors. When smoke begins to infiltrate the room under the doors, the actors were instructed to ignore it and not respond. As you may predict, nine out of then of the subjects followed the lead of the others and continued to fill out their applications. Some even rubbed their eyes and waved the smoke away from their faces, but they didn’t respond to the potential threat. [iv]

As wrong as it may be to view this through the lens of hindsight, it’s a great example of a situation where the participants did not ask what is the worst thing that can happen. If they had, they may have recognized that the potential embarrassment of speaking up sure beats the alternative of being trapped in a burning building.

Personally, I have discovered that asking this question helps me to filter through the long list of nonsense fears that would otherwise keep me thinking small and acting even smaller. Sometimes I’m afraid to do something that I sense I’m being prompted to do. My fear isn’t valid, but still I use it as a good excuse to do nothing. For example, when we considered holding our first FUSION Leadership Conference, I had to ask myself, What is the worst thing that could happen? I had organized enough events to know how to plan, so I knew I could potentially lose a little bit of money but not a significant amount. I concluded that the answer to that question was that no one may sign up to attend—that would be the worst thing that could happen. Now, a year and four conferences later, I understand that the reward greatly outweighed any risk that truly existed.

Often, asking this question forces me to let go of my crutch. I use this with my family too. I’ve said it for so long that before they can even verbalize their fear, they say, “I know, I know…what’s the worst thing that can happen, right?” Ha ha, right on.

What If?

What happens, however, if you ask this question and the answer is daunting to you? My friend shared that reading about the odds of getting into a car accident (five thousand to one) made her want to stay in the house for the rest of the day. Sometimes our fears seem rational to us, even though others may not agree. If you find that fear is a constant struggle, I challenge to really examine if your fear is truly rational, or if it could be irrational. Below are some additional questions that could help you evaluate:

Is the outcome I fear a probable reality?

We discussed the risk matrix earlier in the chapter. This formula considered both the impact and the probability. Yes, the impact of an accident could potentially be significant, but statistics don’t tell the whole story. How probable is it that you will be involved in a car accident on your way to work today? The answer is, “not very.” It’s a possibility but not a probability. Think of all the people you know who drive to work every day for years and have never had an accident.

If your fear, however, is that it will rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the probability rating will be much higher. But the potential impact is significantly lower than the previously mentioned event.

Is there anything I fear more?

Yes, it’s a risk every time you get in your car. But remember, the purpose of fear is to make us alert. As we mentioned above, do everything you can to minimize the risks. Allow this fear to drive you to always wear your seat belt, drive defensively, and ensure that your car is properly maintained. In the final analysis, however, I find that the fear of dying of starvation motivates me to take the risk of driving to the grocery store (smile).

Is my fear nearsighted?

Sometimes we need to consider the fact that maybe we’re not seeing the big picture. Our tunnel vision may be keeping us trapped in the here and now. Everything we do that is considered worthwhile carries some level of risk. If I choose to focus on my fear, I could lose out on the joy of owning a home, having a child, or finding a job that I love. Don’t get caught in that trap.

Are there physiological reasons why my fear seems exacerbated?

Since our body, soul, and spirit are so closely linked, it is very possible that physical conditions are interfering with our ability to reason. Medications, an illness, or a condition could be short-circuiting your emotions. (I can tell you that my brain did not function properly when I was pregnant.) Please consult with your doctor if you suspect that a hormonal imbalance is causing your fears to escalate.

Am I afraid, or do I just want to always be in control?

Let’s face it, often fear comes because we don’t have control over every situation in our lives. We want to order the chaos, but we can’t. The concept of Living Free requires that we control those things that we can control and let go of what we can’t.

Please understand this is only a high-level overview and there is so much more we could say on this subject. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if fear is getting the best of you.

The Wrap-Up

Remember, as we have discussed in earlier chapters, your mind is your battlespace and the struggle is real. Fear can render us hopeless and helpless if we don’t take control of our minds. If we truly want to Live Free and not be trapped in the small thinking that can hold us back from doing anything worthwhile, we need to evaluate every fear by conducting a risk assessment. A risk matrix can be used for more complex problem solving, but often, asking yourself a few simple questions will do the trick.

1. Is my fear based on facts and experience or feelings and perceptions?

2. How can I mitigate the risks?

3. Does the potential gain outweigh the inherent risks?

4. What is the worst thing that can happen?

After conducting your own risk assessment, you should know if the threat is real or perceived. If the threat is real, does the perspective benefit outweigh the risk? If after conducting an assessment you determine that it does, then buckle up and enjoy the ride!

  1. [i] Goddard Space Flight Center, Risk Management Reporting (Greenbelt, MD: NASA, 2009). [ii] Dane Boers, “Beyond the Risk Matrix,” ARMS Reliability(blog), September 13, 2017, [iii] Ben Bowman, “How Do People Survive Plane Crashes?,”, August 2, 2017, [iv] “Smoke Filled Room,” Socially Psyched,

  2. [CC1]Your interior book designer will probably want this as a separate high-resolution .jpeg file or similar format. Also, I’d check about the copyright/permissions for use of the graphic.

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