Cleere’s Corner: Understanding Fear


By Dr. Michelle Cleere

Some of us are born with a genetic level of fear – nature, but much of our fear also develops through our experiences – nurture. Once fear sets in, it holds on tight. Regardless, you can learn to deal with your fears to perform more optimally.

The top 3 biggest reasons my clients experience fear are success, re-injury, and PTSD. It is critical to recognize that it exists and learn to let it go.

What is fear

Fear is something that causes feelings of dread or apprehension. The physical sensations feel so real that you get anxious and avoid situations that produce the fear. That then continues to feed the fear and the cycle continues. And continues.

What are the 3 biggest reasons my clients experience fear?


There is a weird thing that happens when you experience a level of success – you worry about staying there. You may think, OMG I just did so well. I now have some level of fame. How do I stay there or get better? This leads to increased thinking and expectations about how to continue this level of success versus just continue the thinking that got you there.

 I’ve been working with a professional cyclist and this is exactly what happened to him. He was having fun, improving, and took second place during his last crit. That success led to an increase in expectations and instead of thinking about what he needed to continue to do to get better, he focused on the fear of not meeting his and others’ expectations.

The reality is, he did it! He had trained and improved, and that hard work showed up in his race. If he did it once, he can do it again. The recipe is to do what he was initially doing. Once fear sets in that then becomes incredibly difficult, not impossible but difficult. You just need to focus on the right thing.


Most athletes don’t fear injury. Most athletes are actually fearless until they are injured. Injury leaves us feeling vulnerable and fallible. It’s scary because one moment we are whole and the next moment we are not feeling whole. One moment we are confident, doing what we love to do, and the next moment can’t do it for a while or longer.

There are many things that accompany an injury but one big one is the fear of re-injury (vulnerable, fallible, weak and lacking confidence).

I was working with another professional cyclist who crashed. She was descending a steep hill and went over the handlebars. It was a terrible crash and she broke her collar bone. It was painful and she was out for a long time. She came to see me because after she was cleared by the doctor she was not motivated to go cycling. Our work together revealed that while she was slightly afraid of descending it wasn’t that fear per say that kept her away from cycling, she was afraid of re-injuring herself and being idle again.

Our work together helped her develop the mental skills she needed to deal with what happened and move through it so she could let it go. She was soon motivated to cycle and let go of worrying about getting injured.

For more information, check out the psychology of injuries.

#3 – PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition triggered by a terrifying event — either you experience it or you witness it. When a cyclist gets hit by a car or has a severe accident, they can  experience flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as, uncontrollable thoughts about the event. In this situation, a cyclist will most likely avoid cycling but will definitely avoid cycling near where the event happened.

I have worked with a few cyclists who have either been hit by a car or had a severe accident and unfortunately, it lead to these exact symptoms – flashbacks, nightmares, a high level of anxiety, and overpowering thoughts about the event. These are such traumatic events that the only way the brain can make sense of them is to protect itself from having it happen again. In these situations, the fear of it happening again feels very real even though it’s not rational.

Clients have a hard time separating what happened with what is rational partially because they relive it over and over again. This can be the hardest of the three biggest reasons for fear, this too can be dealt with. Slow, progressive exposure to cycling and the event site can be really helpful in some situations. Breaking the cycle of perpetual negative and doubtful thinking is a key factor.

Let it go

Here are some of the steps we take to work through fear and I recommend for you to do when faced with one of the above scenarios:

  1. Talk about it or write it down. When the fear gets stuck in your head, it’s got nowhere to go. Let it out. This takes a lot of the energy and heat off the situation.
  2. Analyze it. Why are you afraid of it? What is really in your control? What can you change with regards to the fear?
  3. Determine if it is realistic. Is your fear realistic? If it’s not realistic, then your only real option is to let it go and find another way of dealing with the situation.
  4. Take action. Accept that the situation happened. Realize that it’s not likely to happen again. Figure out how to move forward and ‘get back on the horse’. The longer and tighter you hold onto it, the more likely that you won’t be successful.

There’s another level of fear – some of my clients fear the fear. They start off fearing success, reinjury or experienced PTSD but moved away from the real fear and aren’t sure what they are scared of anymore. Dig into your fear – write it down, analyze it, decide if it’s realistic and take action. If you are no longer letting the fear control you, you control IT.

Fear is really no different than all mental occurrences – the sooner you realize that something is missing; you need to develop a plan to deal with it. You can potentially figure it out, but if you need help, get help. Don’t let fear sit and stir. It will take over.

We can walk through your situation and determine what you need to let it go. We will work on the particular skills you need to overcome this fear. The sooner you deal with it, the less it lingers and gets in the way of you performing.

“Don’t treat your fear like a precious object and don’t treat it like it’s something special because it will keep you from what you want”. — The One and Only Way to Move Past Fear



Dr. Michelle

Elite Performance Expert

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