Fear is greedy. Fear will slowly steal real estate from your life if you let it. True fear, or a phobia if we want to call it that, is intense. We think about it while lying in bed at night and it can make us break out in a sweat on a cold, fall morning. Eventually, we start to rearrange our entire life based on how we can avoid encountering it. That is where the trouble starts…
To back up just a bit, it can be interesting to understand what exactly is going on when we develop a phobia to something. It’s basically a primitive system gone haywire. Say one day 150,000 years ago, I am walking along and see a stick lying in the road. Playfully, I decide to jump on it and break it. That’s when I realize that’s no stick. I barely avoid being bitten by a venomous snake.
That experience is going to change me forever. It’s as though the amygdala, which is the part of my brain responsible for processing fear, says,“Ok, that’s the last time that will happen! I didn’t have my guard up and it almost cost us, but no more because I’m on it. I may mistake a few sticks for snakes moving forward and I may over-react when I see or even think about a snake, but one thing is for sure — we will never be put in a situation like that again!”
That system has kept us alive since the first humans climbed down from the trees. It’s the main reason that I am sitting here writing this and that you are reading it. It’s been our biggest ally through human civilization and nowadays it can be more hindrance than help. That’s because most of us, thankfully, don’t have the same physical threats that we once did. We are safe much more often than we used to be. Yet, the amygdala is still working double-time, doing its job, trying to keep us safe.
When a deep fear sets in, we do the logical thing. We avoid. That’s when the prison bars start to come up. When we avoid the object that we fear, it’s like pumping steroids into that phobic reaction. Think about someone who is afraid of elevators. There she is, staring at the elevator, her heart pumping, her palms sweaty and her mind racing. She goes to take a step on and then stops. Instead, she backs up and chooses the stairs instead. Instantly, she feels relief because her brain is rewarding her for avoiding “danger.” It’s as though her brain says, “Whew, that was a close one, but we avoided the threat. Good job!” This mechanism is reinforcing and the next time she is faced with an elevator, it will be even harder for her to step on it. The problem is that elevators aren’t dangerous and having to avoid them all the time is a pain in the neck.
In order to stop sacrificing the long-term for short-term relief, we must be willing to approach our fears. There is a book that I read to my kids called Going on a Bear Hunt. In it, there is a line that is repeated over and over again:“You can’t go around it, you can’t go under it, gotta go through it.” That is the perfect description of how we have to address our fears. There is only one way to do it; you gotta go through it.
Here are three tools that can help:
- Recognize the false alarms — Say you are sitting in your living room with your car parked on the street. Your car alarm starts going off and you glance up to see that there is no one there, no danger. You recognize that it is a false alarm and thus you don’t have to call the police or go screaming out of your house to run off an intruder. Yes, the noise is abrasive and you would rather it not be there, but you see it for what it is. You aren’t“tricked” by it. It’s the exact same mechanism when our bodies and minds are producing unpleasant emotions, thoughts and sensations to alert us of danger when in actuality there is none. We have to recognize these as false alarms and respond accordingly.
- Take Response-ability— By this, I mean your ability to respond to the fear. You cannot control the elevated heart beat, the sweaty palms or the racing mind. If you could, you would shut them off like a light switch and you wouldn’t need to read an article about fear. What you can control is how you respond to it. Do you recoil when unpleasant emotions, sensations and thoughts arise and exacerbate the “symptoms?” Or do you see them as the false alarm that they are and welcome them in the ring like you are Iron Mike Tyson in the early ’90s and they’ve shown up to get their whooping. Or, if you are the compassionate type, you could welcome them in like they are a scared, lost child showing up at your doorstep.
- Seek Out Opportunities— When we understand that that fear response is an opportunity to break free from our prison of fear as opposed to a justified reason to flee, we begin to understand that each feared situation is a gift. Assuming we really want to take back our life from fear, we actually WANT to be anxious. We want to seek out public speaking if it scares us to death. We want to work with a therapist if we are scared of snakes or needles. We want to go toward that which we fear as often as possible, equipped with tools that increase our chances of success. Because, remember, you gotta go through it.
This work requires courage and that courage is fed by your Why.
- Why do you want to be free?
- Why are you sick of this thing running your life?
- Why does the fear have to keep holding you back from making friends, advancing in your career or finding a significant other?
The answer is it doesn’t. If you are ready to break free, reach out to talk about how therapy can help.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or feel free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more about my approach to therapy, visit www.richmondanxiety.com.