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Fear Cheat Sheet

Halloween just passed and whether or not you are here for spooky season this is a great time of year to be thinking about fear. Fear is a natural emotion, baked into us as an evolutionary imperative for survival. In fact, our fight, flight, and freeze instinct is a life-saving tool that allows us to overcome obstacles. However, many of us are all too aware of the detrimental impact of fear and fight or flight during our day-to-day life. When we used to have to be prepared at a moment’s notice for a possible wild animal attack it made sense to have a rush of adrenaline, a racing heartbeat, and increased blood pressure, when going into an elevator, on the other hand, it’s a less than ideal physical state. So how then can someone with an overactive fight or flight response learn to manage and cope with this condition?

I think it is important first to be able to classify our fears. There are many ways to do this but for the sake of this blog I’ll keep it simple: rational vs. irrational. Though I’m sure arguments could be made in all directions, I consider rational fears to be those that are in some way a response to danger or threat of harm. I recently watched my parent’s dogs and while taking them outside I noticed a snake on my porch near where we had just walked. I experienced a fear reaction that I would classify as natural because snakes can cause harm. Similarly, a fear of heights, roller coasters, or even the fear response we experience when being cut off in traffic come from a rational fear of harm and danger. Less rational fears are the ones I tend to treat in my practice, fear of failure, fear of commitment, and even fear of leaving the house. These fears are caused generally by a negative emotional experience that created a connection in our brains. If I’ve experienced rejection around my work or in my romantic life, or otherwise had a negative precipitating event it can create a feeling of fear around trying again. The issue with this is twofold: a.) I may stop taking risks or exploring opportunities to avoid negative emotions around things not working out b.) I may experience dysregulation consistent with fight or flight often leading to physical and mental health challenges. This is why it is so important to examine my fears and manage them.

There are many ways to begin tackling fear. I have done exposure therapy work with clients in the past whose fear was inhibiting their ability to enjoy life, particularly with a fear of flying. This work is intensive and takes some time and of course, is best done with the guidance of a professional. We can all begin working on our fear on our own though. One way to do this is through cognitive restructuring, which is the process of examining, evaluating, and then editing or managing my thoughts. I can first ask the question, what am I afraid of? For example, if I’m thinking about getting a new job the answer might be rejection. Then I can ask, how likely is that to happen? Realistically I will probably be rejected from many if not most the jobs I apply to, not because I’m not qualified or unworthy, but because of how many people apply to jobs. Next, I ask what will happen if my fear comes true. In this case, I will apply to more jobs, I could start my own business or I could try to leverage my skills and interests for better benefits at my current job. After I go through these questions I can come up with a more balanced thought focused on what is realistic rather than emotional. For example, I’m going to apply for more jobs and see what happens, I can handle any outcome. Through this process of cognitive restructuring, I gain more control over my thoughts, and thus more control over my feelings.

As the holidays approach there is no doubt that many of us may experience fear: fear of being alone, fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, etc. What is important is not that we avoid and eliminate fear, it’s natural and we have it for a reason, rather, we remember that we can be in control of our fear. It is my belief that life is best lived fully with as little reservation as possible and sometimes that means taking on experiences that scare us. Whatever our fears may be we can go a long way to conquering them by first acknowledging them and then running them through an acid test. If you find yourself having trouble with this or would like more guidance I am here to help!

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