We are all familiar with the pounding heart, heavy breath, and nervous sweat associated with frightening situations. If your brain is functioning properly, fear is a natural instinct that informs you of danger and prepares your body to respond appropriately to a threat.
Sometimes, though, the wiring in highly evolved human brains can malfunction and cause fearful responses when no real threats are present. In turn, inappropriate fear responses can trigger many negative social, emotional, and financial consequences. In order to live responsibly and fully, it’s important to understand the source of your fears, respect your real and perceived threats, and mitigate inappropriate fear responses.
The Source of Fear
First of all, fear isn’t simply an emotion to stifle and minimize. Popular culture contains messages about “manning up” to fears, vanquishing them, or ignoring them. In reality, these messages are ineffectual at best, and emotionally damaging at worst.
All human beings, both men and women, experience fear responses in the most basic parts of the brain. When danger is present, the amygdala – which resides in the brain stem and controls primary functions such as breathing and heart rate – signals the pituitary gland to release a rush of hormones into the body. These hormones are responsible for the uncomfortable heart rate, sweating, and breathing associated with fear.
When you experience physical reactions to fear, it’s the animal part of your brain telling you to prepare for danger. Animals respond to fear by either fighting the threat or fleeing it – and you have no more control over your amygdala’s response to fear than a gazelle does when it spots a lion. Though you may not be threatened by a lion, a healthy fear response from the amygdala can prevent you from entering an abusive relationship, trusting a con artist, or leaving your kids with a dubious caretaker.
However, humans are complex, and our brain structures extend beyond the amygdala. Sometimes the hardware in the human brain misfires – either due to traumatic experiences or a chemical or structural problem – which can lead to unhealthy fear responses in situations that aren’t threatening. Consider, for instance, the war veteran who has debilitating flashbacks during Fourth of July fireworks, or a young child who experiences panic attacks upon seeing a spider. In these instances and countless others, it’s important to recognize the source of fear and create new patterns for coping with it so you can live an enriched and happy life.
Potential Pitfalls of Fear
Fear is the body’s natural and sometimes life-saving response to danger. Each time you experience fear, it’s important to think about the source of your fear, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Once your fear subsides – since it’s unlikely your body will allow you to contemplate many feelings while you’re afraid – try to pinpoint the source of your fear. If you have a fearful response to a stranger or acquaintance, remain vigilant and try to trust your fear response. However, if your fear is in response to an event or person that you know isn’t threatening, you need to take a closer look at your reaction.
There are several categories of fear that may end up stifling your life (rather than protecting it) if they continue unchecked. Consider the following levels and types of fear:
- Phobias: A phobia is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to go to great lengths to avoid the source of their fear. Sometimes the fear is somewhat reasonable, such as a phobia of heights or drowning. Other times, the fear is a little less reasonable, like a fear of birds or dentists. A phobia is differentiated from mere distaste because it triggers a severe physical and emotional response to the fearful stimuli, often causing a sufferer to change his or her entire lifestyle to avoid the trigger.
- Trauma-Induced Fear: Other fears are the direct result of a traumatic experience. Many people who have survived a natural disaster, war, or rape experience debilitating fear responses to triggers that remind them of their trauma, whether or not the trigger in question is actually dangerous. Sufferers of post-traumatic stress or the more serious and long-lasting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts that can damage functioning and quality of life.
- Philosophical Fears: Of course, some human fears are more esoteric than the ones mentioned above. Many people report that their greatest fears are public speaking, taking risks, rejection, or isolation. In psychological terms, these fears are related to the basic human needs for security, belonging, and meaning in life. There’s nothing wrong with fear that surfaces in response to basic needs, but these philosophical concerns can prove to be limiting if they have complete control over your mind.
Fear is a good and healthy reaction to a dangerous world. However, it becomes problematic if you have a phobia, trauma disorder, or debilitating philosophical fear that prevents you from living the life you want to live. An unrealistic fear that causes you to alter your lifestyle may cause damage – you could miss out on job promotions, relationships, and enriching experiences if you serve your fears, rather than allowing your fears to serve you.
How to Cope With Out-of-Control Fear
Treatments and coping methods largely depend upon the type of fear you experience. If you suffer from a phobia or a trauma disorder, it’s prudent to enlist a professional to help you unravel your fear and responses. If your fears are more philosophical and less intrusive than a phobia or trauma disorder, you can make substantial strides through simple introspection and support.
Ask your doctor for advice if you need help controlling fears and anxiety that seem too big for you to handle on your own. And while you may not find it necessary, you may benefit from utilizing the services of a therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional, whether your fears and concerns are debilitating or not.
There are a number of treatment options if you’re weary of accommodating your unrealistic fears:
1. Systematic Desensitization or Exposure Therapy
Most often, systematic desensitization is used for people who suffer from a phobia. In this type of behavioral therapy, a professional exposes you to tiny doses of your phobia until you build a tolerance to the tiny dose. Once you learn to employ relaxation techniques for the small exposures, the professional helps you build a tolerance to higher-level exposures.
Exposure therapy uses the same idea through a different method – instead of starting with tiny doses, the professional starts you with a high level of exposure to your phobia in a controlled environment while coaching you to use relaxation techniques. Both forms of therapy are highly effective.
2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Since its development in 1989, EMDR has provided relief for people who suffer from severe and unresolved trauma, and is recommended by the American Psychiatric Association as an effective treatment for PTSD and other trauma disorders. The method uses visual stimuli and controlled eye movements to release traumatic memories and blockages from the brain.
Depending on the source of your fear, your doctor may prescribe you a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to help alleviate the chemical processes linked to uncontrollable fear. Medication isn’t appropriate for all types of fear responses, so you need to talk with your doctor prior to taking any drugs.
Although it doesn’t hurt to consider professional help, some people can make headway on addressing their fears from the comfort of their own homes. Consider the following options to assist you with understanding your emotions:
- Visualization. Spend time imagining your fears and the responses you hope for. If you’re scared of public speaking, imagine addressing a crowd of people with confidence and purpose, rather than feeling overcome by humiliation.
- Journaling. Fears have a way of spinning out of control when they’re contained inside your brain. Try writing about your fears, and you may find they’re less overwhelming on paper than they were in your head.
- Reading. Sometimes it’s important to educate yourself about your particular brand of fear so that it loses its power. There is great comfort in understanding that you’re normal and that you’re not alone. If you suffer from phobias or PTSD, find an online support group that provides educational material for additional knowledge.
- Relaxation Techniques. The body can’t sustain a fear response if it’s simultaneously experiencing relaxation. Put your fears at ease by practicing meditation, deep breathing, stretching your muscles, or other forms of self-care.
If you feel overwhelmed or uncertain at any point in your self-guided introspection, call a therapist, counselor, or confidant to help you sort through your feelings and questions.
Fear isn’t an emotion to stifle, cure, or minimize. It needs to be respected, much like you respect any piece of information you receive about your health and well-being. But if you recognize that your fears are unreasonable and that they’re in control of your life, don’t waste another minute of your life suffering unnecessarily. High-quality and effective help is available through your doctor, therapist, and, to a certain extent, by self-introspection and examination.
How do you address your fears?