Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health

How to turn your fears into motivation


4 January 2018

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Did you know we’re born with only two fears? The fear of falling and loud noises. Other fears are learned, usually through events or situations throughout our lives; from an early age we’re told to take care, or to avoid certain things that might lead to a negative outcome.

It’s these ‘learned’ fears that can sometimes be to blame for the self-limiting expectations we place on ourselves, especially in relation to our health. We often let negative self-talk undermine our confidence to achieve our goals – we might tell ourselves ‘I’ll be no good at this’ or ‘I can’t’, before we’ve even tried.

But what if we could use certain fears about our future health as motivation to make positive changes to our lives? Can fears fuel our wellbeing?

Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health explains:

“Fear is completely normal – in its basic form, it’s nature’s way of protecting us from harm. But our learned fears can sometimes take over, acting as a barrier to stop us from leading the life we would like. When we fear a situation or an activity we may become overwhelmed, procrastinate or avoid it altogether, rather than deal with it. In doing this, we’re denying ourselves an opportunity.

“Instead of letting these fears hold us back, we can use them as a trigger to take action and turn them into a set of challenges to get motivated. We should ask ourselves ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ In reality, nothing is ever as bad as we first thought!”

So, what are you afraid of and what is it stopping you doing in your life? Whatever it is, we bet you’re not alone.

The following steps from Dr Winwood are designed to help unlock the motivation to invest in your health and wellbeing.

Tips for turning our fears into motivation

1. Choose a fear you can manage

Chances are, you may already have fears to do with your health and wellbeing.

Start by focussing on the smaller fears, the ones that feel easier to manage – like having to slow down in older age because you’re not as physically active as you’d like. Once you’ve proven you can take ownership of these, you can use the same technique on the bigger, scarier ones.

Latch on to the fear that comes to mind about your future health.

2. Ask yourself what's behind that fear?

Try to picture where the fear comes from and what really lies behind it. When you’ve identified the true meaning of your fear, you can take the next step.

For example, take the fear of slowing down as you get older. For one person, the meaningful aspect might be the fear of not being able to join in activities with their kids or grandchildren…for someone else, it might be the fear of having to give up something they enjoy, like a sport, or hobby.

This is your motivating fear – the fear that’s going to help you improve your health and wellbeing as you move forward into the future.

3. Take ownership and share

Make yourself accountable by sharing your motivating fear with friends or family. Sharing your intentions to improve your wellbeing with others will help you commit to facing and owning those fears. If you’d rather keep it to yourself, simply writing it down can also help.

4. Make a plan

What action are you going to take today, tomorrow, next week, and beyond?

Try to make a realistic plan that uses fear as a catalyst to change any unhealthy habits. Start by thinking about what you want to improve – like your physical fitness or mental wellbeing. If you’d like to be more active but don’t know where to start, then take small steps today towards achieving your goal – get off the sofa to take your ironing upstairs during TV ad breaks is better than sitting scrolling through social media! Tomorrow, you can walk instead of getting the bus, next week you can pick up the pace a bit more.

Help to get you started

Making a plan will give you a sense of responsibility over the action you’re going to take and give you greater satisfaction when you start achieving your goals. But how do you start setting yourself goals?

It may not feel like it, but if you do this, you’ll be on your way to owning your fears and improving your health.

Top 5 tips to make a successful plan and stick to it

1. Think about your ultimate goal – start thinking what your life might be like if you were to achieve this.

For example, if it’s to lose some weight, it can be a little overwhelming knowing how to start because there’s so much advice about the best ways to do it. This can be enough to put you off taking the first step! Instead, break down your goal into manageable ‘chunks’ that will take you to your ultimate goal – after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Make a S.M.A.R.T. plan

Once you’ve identified the more manageable things that will lead you to achieving your ultimate goal, make sure they’re:

Specific – it could be as simple as agreeing that you’ll cut out your afternoon chocolate bar.
Measurable – think about 30 chocolate bars all piled up at the end of one month and you’ll feel pleased with yourself!
Agreeable – smaller more achievable goals will give you a real sense of accomplishment and spur you on to try more things.
Realistic – don’t make yourself miserable by cutting out everything you love or doing things you don’t enjoy. Remember, start small, it’s not a race.
Time-bound – why not start this afternoon? Tomorrow? Try it for one week, then two and so on.

3. Get rid of obstacles

You know the ones; “but I haven’t got any decent trainers”, “I haven’t got time”, “I haven’t got money”, plus the negative self-talk in which you tell yourself you’re not worth it, so why bother?

Dr Winwood says; “Writing lists of the ‘pros and cons’ of reaching your goal can help address any barriers – real or perceived. When you focus on the ‘cons’, think about the likelihood of them actually occurring. What can you do to proactively address the ‘cons’?”

4. Share your plans with someone else – a friend, family member, work colleague or on-line community

“Dr Winwood says; “Sharing your goals and how you’re going to achieve them can really help you commit to your goal and succeed. As well as this, using a journal to plan and examine your thoughts and reflections, such as a ‘Bullet Journal’ can be a really helpful way to track day-today activities and experiences. Planning and learning along the way is the key to success.”

5. Create some urgency, but do things at your own pace

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. What you do now is one step closer than yesterday. You may want to improve your fitness but fear not being able to walk or run fast enough to make a difference? Just get out and about anyway and remember, you’re lapping the person who is still sitting on the couch. It all comes back to those manageable chunks.

Further reading

5 Reasons you've lost your motivation (and how to get it back) - AXA Health

Fitting change into your lifestyle - AXA Health

Ten ways to develop healthy eating habits - AXA Health

Don't let these 10 common exercise myths hold you back from being active - AXA Health


Gibson, Eleanor J.; Walk, Richard D, The "Visual Cliff" Published by Scientific American (1960)

Norrholm SD, Jovanovic T, Vervliet B, Myers KM, Davis M, Rothbaum BO, Duncan EJ. Conditioned fear extinction and reinstatement in a human fear-potentiated startle paradigm. Learning and Memory. 2006;13(6):681–685. The National Center for Biotechnology Information

Seth Norrholm is a translational neuroscientist at Emory University. Norrholm explains that if a sound is loud enough "you're going to duck down your head. Loud noises typically means startling. That circuitry is innate."

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