We all feel fear. If we didn’t, our species would have ceased to exist long ago. Fear signals us that something is wrong, that a risk of harm is present, or that we must fight or flee the situation. We survive because fear exists as a reaction.
To understand fear, we must look to our histories as individual learners. While the fear response is automatic, what we learn to fear is not. We learn based on associating situations (people, places, things) with exposure to actual harm or distress. The exposure can be obvious—a dog barking at a small child, or it can be subtle—a parent’s upset raising to the level of anger at a child. These learned responses form long-lasting triggers to our fears. The learning becomes like a pair of glasses that focus our mind's eye on things that will make us afraid again.
When something truly threatens us, fear informs us to react to save ourselves. However, fear also undermines our lives. Fear takes our minds from the present to those past learned reactions when triggers, not necessarily actual threats, come into our awareness. When we react with fear to something that isn’t a threat, three things happen that make life less satisfying.
- Thinking inside fear: Fear reactions usually precede conscious recognition of a risk. When no genuine risk exists, we will perceive one. That’s right, we will create an idea that’s fear-based, and then misjudge our surroundings, leading to catastrophic predictions. These gloom and doom ideas perpetuate fear as catastrophizing shapes our worldview. We begin to think inside the fear, rather than inside the real world.
- Erosion of competency: Fear not only shapes how we view the world, but also how we view ourselves. When we feel afraid repeatedly, yet have no real cause of the fear, we lose our sense of being able to deal with the “risk.” Our anxieties begin to undermine our sense of competency, as we build new beliefs that tell us we can’t handle risks or threats. We assume the worst about our capacity to deal with life.
- Over-monitoring our bodies: Eventually, we develop fear in response to being afraid. Anticipating anxiety leads to fear, causing us to monitor our physical experience related to fear (like increased heart rates or flushed cheeks). Over time, the we monitor those physical experiences, so that when we flush or feel our heart rate increase, we begin to fear what’s coming next. In this way, we learn to fear being afraid.
Since these reactions seldom bring pleasure or joy, all of us develop ways to avoid or escape situations to reduce our experiences of fear. Unfortunately, avoidance or escape actually leads to stronger fear, since running from fear rewards the avoidance or escape through reductions in the negative feelings. Avoidance and escape reinforce our catastrophic thinking, lack of self-confidence, and over-attending to our physical reactions. We become enslaved to the fear—avoidance cycle.
Research on fear has consistently shown that our lives diminish in the face of the fear-avoidance cycle. For example, parents who fear being incompetent when rearing children will become overly aggressive to stop children from displaying strong emotions. But, we end up teaching our children aggression while missing an opportunity to teach them how to manage their feelings and actions. We never serve ourselves or our loved ones when fear runs our world.
Science tells us that fear can be mastered—through the use of a strategy called exposure. Authors such as Dr. David Burns called it paradoxical acceptance (see The Feeling Good Handbook), which is to say that fear can be changed by not fearing it. An excellent new resource is Dr. Robert Leahy's book on being anxiety free (see the link below). Strategies known to work on anxiety almost always rely on exposing ourselves to the things we fear, but there’s a catch. We must expose ourselves long enough to allow new learning to occur. In most cases, fear will lose its grip within 45 to 90 minutes of continual exposure, but not everyone can tolerate the process. Many of us must use gradual exposure, starting with things that cause a little fear, mastering those, and then building up to the bigger anxiety triggers. Years ago, Dr. Joseph Wolpe called this graduated exposure.
President Roosevelt is famous for saying that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. For a politician, he was quite a psychologist. When we adopt a belief that we can tolerate being afraid, and take on the role of experimenter in our own lives, regaining the fullness and joy of living is possible. We become happier, less controlling, and more effective folks through acceptance of fear.