A loud, jarring noise woke me. I couldn’t fit it into a known category, and the hair on the back of my neck start to rise. Was it a burglar in the night? Was my life in danger? My heart pounding, I lay there frozen with fear, listening.
Hearing nothing further, but fully awake by now I reached over and switched on the light. And discovered that my cats had tipped a Mag flashlight (3 battery size) against a ceramic pot. Nothing broken! Reassured, I scritched a few feline ears and gradually settled back into drowsy sleep.
I had experienced primal fear. We are born with it. Babies instinctively fear falling and loud noises. (Their fear of strangers waits until they can differentiate between self and others, typically about 18 months or so.)
Teenagers, ruled by the emotion-laden amygdula have fear—and pronounce to the world that they don’t. They sport T-shirts blazoned with ‘No Fear’ and wear Goth and death’s head rings. They look fear in the eye, just to feel the rush.
By the time we become adults, fear is a familiar, if unwelcome companion. In this post I’ll be examining our uneasy relationship with fear—why we fear fear, why it is sometimes healthy, and how to minimize its effects when it is not.
Early Fears Trigger a Fear-reaction Pattern
When I was little, it was a real treat in our small town when a new Disney movie came to town. Although the death of Bambi’s mother had given me pause, I still looked forward to the ‘Tale of the Headless Horseman.’
With no television, we were glued to the movie screen in the darkened theater and its world became our world. Perhaps because of the unexpected nature of the pumpkin rolling down the darkened street, I became terrified! I remember being teased for ‘being a baby.’ But I remained frightened and averse to even going out at night into dark places for many months after.
B. F. Skinner created a similar pattern with a young boy named Albert. Through conditioning, he set up a fear pattern so that Albert became afraid of a white rat. What Skinner didn’t anticipate was that Albert’s fear spread. Not only was he afraid of white rats, he became fearful of anything white and fuzzy, including a tame white rabbit. It took much longer to UNcondition Albert of this new generalized fear.
Albert was more fortunate than I was, when I first tried to learn how to swim. The local rec center offered swimming classes in a roped off area of the river. Because of a fight with my sister, I was late to the first class, and was mistakenly put into a group of experienced swimmer, all much larger than I was.
I remember shivering in water up to my ears, hearing the instructor announce “Now, this morning we are going to do the jelly fish float.” I watched in growing terror as the task moved around the circle, and each child obediently grabbed their legs, turned into a ball, and dunked their head under the water. Under the water?
I panicked, and the next thing I remember I was up on the stony bank, looking anxiously up into the parking lot for my mother. She had left to go shopping, so I sat there, dripping on a rock until she returned an hour later.
‘How did it go?’ she asked. ‘Oh, fine’, I mumbled. But the next week I had a stomach ache and the week after that a sore toe…I did not get back into the water until three years later. And then, only after she persisted.
My fear had been generalized into a long-standing avoidance of water and swimming.
Common fears have a name
Adults often generalize fears as well. We call it ‘agoraphobia’ or fear of the marketplace, where an individual spends much of their life inside their home, afraid to even open the curtains to peer out at a very frightening world.
These fears are more common than you might suppose, and we have invented words for many of them:
When young children cling to their mother’s skirts and cry, they may be experiencing xenophobia, fear of strangers. Hollywood has made millions from arachnophobia, fear of spiders, of course. I have done a post on Triskaidekaphobia, our fear of the number 13 .
My strongest experience with claustrophobia was in a sweat lodge ceremony in a cave carved into a dirt creek bank. I sat in the hot, steamy darkness, surrounded by the close breathing of others and the rough dirt wall at my back.
I lasted an ignominious five minutes before I backed out beneath the blanket into clear, pure air. The Native American shaman just smiled knowingly; She had seen my type of wannabe White eyes before!
The Big Three of all fears
All of these pale, though, before the biggest fears of them all:
atychiphobia: fear of failure
metathesiophobia: fear of changes
athazagoraphoia: fear of being forgotten, ignored or forgetting
All fears are triggered, at some level, by a sense of loss, but never more so than the fear of failure. To a man or woman who has experienced the pinnacle of success, fear of failure can be a very real fear.
And likewise, in all of us, fear of change may be induced by the need to give up something, to let go in order to move on to new experiences. The transfer to a new job means letting go of an old familiar world.
The move to a new relationship with friends means letting go of the comforting sense of being taken care of in our family of origin.
Even the chance to travel means letting go of that familiar bed, those comforting Golden Arches, for the possibility of experiencing something new and unexpected.
To a celebrity or sports figure, or Olympian enjoying a brief, intense moment in the sun, the fear of being forgotten is intensely real. The fear of being forgotten or ignored strikes at the very heart of ego. If people don’t notice us, do we still exist?
Fear can be used to manipulate others
We all have experienced it. “Just wait until your dad gets home!” “I’m going to tell the teacher!” “You’re going to be sorry!” We learn at an early age that we can heighten another’s fear to our own advantage. Using fear then becomes a way to gain advantage over another.
The media, of course, is expert at this. Aflac, that cute duck, speaks for the insurance company that in turn sponsors a documentary on hurricanes. Is the subliminal message to be afraid and buy insurance?
Juxtaposed with a cancer survivor’s story in the woman’s magazine is an ad for a new depression medication. If we experience fear of death, will we buy their medications?
Institutions do it, as well. During the Wars, Hollywood actors earned good money making thinly disguised propaganda films portraying the “Other” as evil incarnate to be feared.
In more recent times, The second Bush administration got in hot water with its insistence on the existence of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction). By playing on fears of 911 and terrorists, moneys were appropriated to initiate conflict.
Even today, in these economically hard times, more fear is aroused by the media than is perhaps necessary in the name of sales. “If it bleeds it leads” is not just a convenient catch phrase. Fear sells.
Fear can be obsessive and addictive
Have you ever caught your mind spinning in an endless squirrel wheel of what-ifs? Once I bent the rules a little for a client and got caught in a war zone between two in-fighting experts both vying for a top job.
Would I lose my job and if that happened, my credit rating and my car and my home? By the time I was done I had me sitting under the bridge sharing a can of (cheap) tuna with my cat!
I am happy to report than none of the what-ifs occurred. I was a little more careful to toe the mark in succeeding weeks until the power struggle at the office quieted down a bit. But I learned how destructive creating my own fear spiral could be.
I would have benefited by remembering a simple saying. AA has been using the Serenity Prayer since its inception to combat fear:
When is fear healthy?
We don’t like fear. It is discomforting in its pounding insistence upon change, upon motion, upon action. It forces us out of our inertia and into a different frame of mind.
In order to buy life insurance, write a will, we have to admit that there is a chance (outside, but still a chance) that someday we will actually die.
If we live in a city we lock our cars, take valuables out of the back seat, and park in safe neighborhoods. We look both ways when we cross a street. We don’t stand under a tree when there is a lightening storm ongoing. And in my neck of the woods, we don’t camp in the bottom of a dry wash.
All of these fear based actions keep us safer in our day-to-day existence. We do this, even though the likelihood that any of the above happening (with the exception of death) is relatively slim. This is healthy fear.
When is fear counterproductive?
For instance, something happens that scares us. We remember it, implant it deep in our memory and intensify its importance. When something similar triggers those memories, the two events are daisy-chained into a memory/reaction that becomes even larger.
One such example is the role of conflict in our lives. People who spent time in a dysfunctional home as a child learned at an early age that conflict was not safe. When parents got loud and disagreed, little ones could get hurt, too.
It was a real, healthy fear. These children coped in several ways: they would leave the scene of the conflict, either physically or by disassociating mentally. Or they would set themselves up as a distraction to halt the conflict, by deliberately playing the clown or taking on the role of a scapegoat.
As such individuals grow to adulthood, the threat of conflict or disagreement may still set off the alarms of fear and emotional unsafety.
They may revert to what worked in their family of origin, distraction of the combatants through jokes or accepting blame, or they may tune out or physically leave. None of these fear reactions may be appropriate in the business mileau or with intimate relationships. Only the fear wins.
How to change a fear reaction
A person can change their reaction to fear. If fear is getting in the way of what you want to do, consider these actions. I’ve used them all over the years, to cope with overwhelming fears.
Become aware of fear and label it. “I am feeling fear, but I am NOT my fear.”
Determine where the fear is coming from and make a judgment. Is this a realistic fear? If so, action is needed. If not, work to lessen its attention field.
Learn to meditate. Research has found that the amygdula is the emotion center of the brain, where fear and other intense feelings are generated. However, individuals who regularly meditate experience fear not in the amygdula but rather in the neo-cortex. They have been able to moderate their emotional reactions.
If the fear is overwhelming, seek out a good counselor. They may be able to moderate your fears through systematic desensitization techniques.
Work toward acceptance. Feeling fear is OK. Letting it rule one’s life is not OK.
Imagine the worst. Thank Albert Ellis for this one. Deliberately conjure up the worst possible scenario. Then judge. What is the true likelihood this might occur? Assign a percentage to it. Choose to continue worrying or take action only if the percentage is really high.
Write out your fears in a journal or a letter to yourself. Often seeing them on paper de-tracks them from the well-worn grooves you have worn in your mind.
Talk to a trusted friend. Sometimes the mere fact of having a neutral witness can scare the boogeyman out of the closet.
Take responsibility for your own problems. If ills are blamed on another, you also lose the ability to solve those problems, as well. Nothing is more frightening that being in a car on an icy road, with someone else at the wheel!
Breathe. If you find that you are using internal memories to fuel fear and panic, ground yourself with external cues. Ground yourself by paying attention to your breath, to the sounds and sensory cues of the outside world.
Some of these suggestions operate on the dominance of the rational mind over the emotional one. Others by distraction. Still others by lessening the obsessive hold that fear can have on our imaginations and our lives.
Recognize fear for what it is: a signal that something is wrong. Then take a moment to determine if that danger is present, here and now. And finally, decide if you need to take action.
If you can accept and make friends with your fears, they can serve as useful allies rather than an experience to be avoided at sometimes a very high cost.