Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

Scared or Startled?

Five Tips to Step Out of the Fear

A client told me a story about how she was driving around on vacation and became quite lost trying to get back to her hotel. After driving around for some time, she found herself driving at night, unexpectedly, over a large bridge that did not lead toward her hotel, but rather took her farther away. As she described the experience to me, she painted the picture of how the bridge “loomed in the fog, its lights soaring higher and higher into the sky” as she drove. She talked about gripping the wheel and feeling a sense of panic as she drove this bridge. She finished the story by saying, “And I’m not even phobic about bridges.”

As she told the story, I felt the sense of fear and disorientation she must have felt with this experience. I started to think about the many times that someone has told me how afraid they are of something – flying, driving, public speaking and spiders are some of the more popular fears I hear about. Fears, anxiety attacks and phobias seem more common than we might realize. To understand the numbers within the population, I researched the National Alliance for Mental Illness and found the following statistic:

Specific phobias often begin in childhood and can last throughout one’s lifetime unless properly treated. Some estimates suggest that up to 15 to 20 percent of people will experience symptoms of specific phobia over the course of their life. Specific phobias affect people of all ages, races, genders, cultures and socioeconomic status.

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15-20% of the population is not an insignificant number. It means on any given day there are millions of people walking around feeling afraid of something. Fear is not rational. You could be afraid of “something coming” that never arrives! The bridge experience is a good example: The bridge was safe; the client returned back to her hotel – albeit late – in fine shape, and the incident is in the past.

When we have phobias or fears we don’t think about the viability of them, or the rationality of them. We just know we are afraid. We know that something is out there, some danger or some problem that we might not be in a position to solve or withstand.

Having coping approaches when a sense of panic or fear overcomes is useful for many people. Although the woman on the bridge doesn’t have phobias, she experienced a sense of panic in that moment. If you have ever been afraid, you know how beneficial it is to call upon some tools and resources to calm frayed nerves and give you a sense of being grounded.

Here are five tips for quelling anxiety and restoring peace in the moment of feeling panicked or afraid:

  1. Breathe. This one seems so simple, and yet in the moment of an anxiety attack, most people forget to breathe. Fear tends to clog and put a stranglehold on your breath. You might even gasp and feel like you are suffocating. Deliberately focus on the in breath, and the out breath. Turn your attention to your breathing.
  2. Think pleasant thoughts. The mind can’t focus on two things at once. If you start to turn your attention toward something you like – the face of your child, a treasured pet, a beach you enjoy walking along, newly fallen snow, or a sunny day – whatever it may be for you, get a picture or thought in your mind of something you feel fondly toward and that makes you happy.
  3. Focus on what you say to yourself. Most anxiety feeds on negative self-talk. You start telling yourself how high the bridge is, how unsafe it might be, and how scared you are, for example. Your mind takes on images and ideas that are scary and unsettling. Realize you are doing this.
  4. Change what you say. Once you realize how your words are exacerbating the situation and increasing your fear, you can change what you are saying. It can be helpful, if you are in a situation to do so, to talk out loud to yourself. The woman on the bridge could have said aloud in her car, “Bridges end,” or “I will find my way back as soon as I get on the other side,” or “It’s amazing how fog works and can cloud my view – what’s the nature of the fog I see?” You can talk about something positive, or you can just talk – about anything. Just be sure you are talking about something calming and objective.
  5. Adopt the mantra “This too shall pass.” Whatever you are experiencing is truly only a moment in time. All good things move on, all difficult things pass along. It might not be as quickly as you would like it to, but it will pass. Remind yourself of this whenever you feel sucked in by the phobia.

It’s a natural reaction to be fearful of something that could harm you – if you are walking down the street and a car veers around the corner driving wildly, you want to be able to jump out of the way. Reserve your energy and your resources for those time when you need a fear-based response to work in your favor. Don’t waste your energy on fears and phobias that simply drain you and don’t offer you anything in return.

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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