With Halloween just around the corner, I'm exploring how we can notice when healthy fear and anxiety becomes 'disordered' or unhelpful. Fear has evolved over thousands of years to protect us from danger and increase our chances of survival. A complete lack of fear is actually more dangerous, and can be symptomatic of types of brain damage. However, sometimes we get stuck with disproportionate fears and anxieties which add unnecessary stress to our lives and could hold us back from doing the things we want to do.
I always notice my automatic fear response when the jellyfish appear in the sea during the Cornish summer! I know that they are harmless enough, but my brain is not okay with me touching into squidgy things in the water that I can't see.
This is an automatic response, not controlled by rational thinking. It's an old survival mechanism with sensible origins, but I don't need to hold onto it anymore. This is an example of when I 'feel the fear and do it anyway' because I love the water and don't want to miss out during the warmest months.
However, I also have other fears which are credible and make sense rationally. We nearly all have these, and they include things like:
Fear of Physical Danger
Fear of Germs/Illness
Fear of Rejection/Loss
Fear of Failure
These include psychological threats, which seem to be increasingly prevalent as our lives have become so complex and busy. The fear of change and uncertainty is also hardwired for us, because they both usually involve some element of risk.
Shame and Fear
To add another layer of challenge, many of us might be unaware or in denial of our fears because they could be associated with vulnerability or embarrassment. We could avoid the fact that we are afraid and mask fear with other actions or emotions. Accepting and holding space for a fear is often an incredibly helpful first step in reducing it.
I haven't put 'conquering our fears' because that feels very ambitious and potentially sets us up to fall short. If our fears and anxieties are hard wired and well practiced, it's a huge ask to alleviate them completely. Over an extended period of time though, we can aim to reduce them so that they don't get in the way or cause unnecessary stress in our lives.
Gradual exposure is said to support people with practical, physical fears, as well as some psychological ones. This could be things like gradually paddling toes in the sea for someone who is afraid of open water, or getting on a quiet bus for someone very anxious about public transport. Small manageable steps are much healthier for our nervous systems than a 'rip off the band aid' type exposure. If you have a fear of something practical, try and write down some tiny steps you could take to reduce it. The smaller the better.
If your fear is more psychological, then sometimes questioning it can be helpful. When we have a block or resistance to doing something, it's usually because of a fear.
Try journaling around your fear and anxiety by answering the question 'so what?' This will lead you to the 'core fear' and from there you can question whether this is:
a) likely, and
b) manageable to overcome.
Often we are afraid of being uncomfortable, even if we know that it will be temporary. Our cognitive thinking might be able to reassure us that temporary discomfort and anxiety is manageable for the greater overall outcome.
Another journaling prompt is about imagining life without the fear:
What would life be like if I wasn't afraid of xxx?
What is likely to happen if I let this fear continue to influence me?
Sometimes this helps us realise which fears are helpful and keeping us safe, and which are just keeping us stuck. I'd love to hear how you get on with these prompts and reflections. You can let me know in the linked Instagram post here.