By Lynwood Wheeler, PhD, ABPP
Impeachment trial. Mass shootings. Prison riots and killings. Local shootings and robberies. These are just a few of the headlines I see at the time of writing this. Headlines such as these can lead to many emotions, some of which can be concern, stress and even fear.
Fear is a common experience for all of us. Unfortunately, it has the potential to control us and even rob us in various seasons of our lives. It can lead to bad decisions and even keep us from taking risks or doing things that would have brought joy or fulfillment. Courage is not always the absence of fear but the willingness to do what you long to or even should do despite the fear.
We can associate fear with negative, but it is not always bad. The rattle of a rattlesnake evoking fear is good. Being frightened to get too close to the edge of a high cliff – once again, good. Fear’s purpose is to protect us from dangers in our environment.
Your body is so complex and your “processing speed” so fast that before your conscious mind has fully made sense of something you see, hear or smell, your body will react to keep you safe. Many of you have had the experience of jumping out of the way of an oncoming car, or avoiding another such danger, before you fully comprehended the danger in your conscious mind.
The problem with fear often can be the fears that we create. A name very familiar to many is Ivan Pavlov, who won a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work with dog saliva (which does sound strange). Dr. Pavlov observed that his dogs started to salivate when the people who fed them entered the room.
He began ringing a bell when the dog’s food was presented, and over continued pairing of the ringing bell and food, the dogs began to salivate when the bell was rung with no food being presented. The dogs started to associate the two, and his findings led to the recognition that our brain can associate a neutral stimulus with something that is completely unrelated.
You have had this experience. Think of the last time you had a “stomach bug.” I remember one such time and the evening before I was sick, I ate some grilled salmon. After going through the symptoms of vomiting and cramps, I was unable to eat salmon again for some time. The two were unrelated but happened in such close proximity that I had associated the taste, smell and even sight of salmon with a feeling of nausea. Sometimes if you think about some of the fears, or even self-doubts, that you have, they may be associated with a previous negative experience.
One of the most well-researched treatments for fear is confronting the feared situation. In saying this, I am not endorsing confronting all fears. For example, if a person has a fear based on childhood abuse, then the confrontation would be focused more on the fears and self-doubts that have developed as a result of the abuse, and not on confronting the actual abuser. Also, as was established, some fears are beneficial – please don’t go out looking for a rattlesnake to confront!
WITHDRAWAL, AVOIDANCE AND CATASTROPHIZING
Unfortunately, fear can lead to withdrawal and avoidance. We can also begin “catastrophizing” where we build the fear up in our mind and imagine threats, dangers and risks that are greater than they really are. The avoiding and catastrophizing can reinforce the fear, or make it stronger. There are healthy fears, but we also can spend a lot of time and emotional energy fearing and worrying about things that will never happen.
CONQUERING FEAR WITH LOVE
In therapy, people work on fears by identifying them, developing skills to reduce the situational anxiety, and making a plan for gradually confronting the fears. I mentioned Pavlov earlier. He also found that over time when the bell was not rung when food was presented, the dogs stopped salivating at the sound of the bell. Therefore, we can also “unlearn,” especially fears we have developed that are not be based on the truth, such as seeing yourself in an overly negative way.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned some headlines and how these can lead to fear, and possibly even a tendency to “withdraw to safety.” An effective way to confront this fear is to do the opposite of withdraw and to engage with others in a positive way and focus on “being love.” Coming from a Christian worldview, I think of the Biblical writer who said that “there is no fear in love, and perfect love drives out fear.”
Instead of avoiding and retreating, focus on the truth of what you do have that is good and positive such as relationships and how you can be love to others today.
Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not as medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding counseling or mental health, please contact Psychology & Counseling to make an appointment.
At Psychology & Counseling, we offer counseling and mental health assessments. Following diagnosis, we work with you to determine the best course of treatment and counseling for you. If you would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at (601) 261-1650.