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Coping with Fear in a Frightening World
Richard E. Ruhrold, Ph.D., HSPP
Vice President for Clinical Services
Otis R. Bowen Center
Learn about fear and anxiety. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to mastering fear. While it is too early to have reliable research data, it is likely that recent events will lead to an increased incidence of clinical anxiety disorders in our country. Anxiety disorders occur when fear and worry become sufficiently frequent and intense that they negatively affect one’s quality of life. One may feel chronically tense and have trouble sleeping. One may become irritable and have trouble concentrating on tasks. Persons likely notice bodily symptoms such as rapid breathing and heart rate, cold, clammy hands and feet, muscular tension, change in skin temperature, digestive system complains, or occasional dizziness.
When behavioral health professionals work with people suffering from anxiety, we often find that clients get substantial relief from their symptoms just by learning about anxiety and panic. Even if fear is not disabling, accurate knowledge often creates an enhanced sense of control and greater emotional comfort.
Recognize that fear is a normal emotion. There is nothing "crazy" about fear. Fear keeps us safe by putting us "on alert" to possible dangers in our environment. Fear involves a series of complex nervous system and hormonal changes that increase our energy, stamina and physical strength and quicken our reaction time. These changes, often called "the flight or fight response", equip us to deal with threats or emergencies and better our chances of avoiding harm.
Understand how "what if" thinking creates unhealthy fear. Especially in times of stress, our normal fear response may give way to excessive, unrealistic and even disabling fear and panic. Persons who do a lot of "What if?" thinking may be at particular risk. Devoting too much mental energy to thoughts like "What if I get hurt?" "What if I get sick?" "What if something terrible happens?" makes it difficult to concentrate on our work and other needs of the moment. Imagining that bad things might happen triggers the same kind of nervous system and hormonal changes that are brought on by real threats. As remarkable as our "flight or fight" system is, it does a poor job of telling the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. We can make ourselves increasingly anxious, even throw ourselves into a panic, when our creative imagination has us thinking "What if?"
Learn to challenge "what if" thinking. Anxious thinking is likely learned. Perhaps we picked it up from family members who taught us by example. Perhaps we’ve experienced disturbing past events and now feel a need to be vigilant to avoid further "surprises." Don’t blame yourself for the way you think. While such thinking may make sense in the context of our personal experience, it still can strip away much of our "in the moment" happiness. Just as anxious thinking can be learned, it can also be unlearned…with practice. Try this method. Obtain a personal journal. On the first page, write down your most common "What if?" thoughts. Study what you’ve written down to commit these thoughts to memory through repetition. This will make it easier for you to "catch yourself" when you begin "worry thinking". Keep the journal with you. Whenever you notice that you’re getting into "worry mode," write down whatever you are thinking at the time. Writing will give you greater objectivity and "distance" from your thoughts. Eventually, you want to begin to debate these anxious thoughts, writing down why they may not be helpful or valid. Do this even if you don’t really believe it! In time, healthier more realistic ways of thinking will come more easily and begin to replace the paralyzing "What ifs…"
Seek reassurance if you need it. If you have worries that might benefit from being "checked out", do so. Action is an antidote for fear. For example, since fear can increase both your heart rate and muscle tension, it is common for people to "feel something" in the chest. The fear of a heart problem only makes the fear worse. Consult with your doctor. Get the reassurance you need to put this "what if…" to rest. Get treatment if it is needed. Be careful about "doctor hopping". Some people are so afraid something is wrong that they are unwilling to accept normal test results or a doctor’s "clean bill of health." They will go to doctor after doctor seeking to confirm their suspicions. This kind of behavior is counterproductive and only strengthens fear.
Face your fear…if it’s safe to do so. I recently read an article about a flight attendant who developed an intense fear of flying after surviving the crash of a small commuter plane. Yet, she loved her job and wanted to resume her career. She chose to conquer her fear by flying as a passenger on the same type of plane on the same route as the ill-fated flight. She was terribly fearful, but she clung to the knowledge that air travel is one of the safest ways to get around and that the likelihood of another mishap was extremely low. The flight was a "white knuckler," but her method worked. She’s been back to work ever since. This example may seem "radical," but the basic principle is sound. One of the more reliable ways to conquer a worry is to face what we are afraid of and learn first hand that it’s not as bad as we had feared. But use some common sense. Is the fear so intense that it is really beyond my ability to face it? Do I need a hand to hold"? Do I run a real risk if I confront this fear? If so, it may be foolish, even dangerous to use the "face the fear" method.
Talk with others about your fears. Many people are embarrassed about their fears. They think fear is a sign of personal weakness and that they are alone in their worries. These concerns are misplaced. Anxiety is very common. Fear is a normal response to threatening circumstances. By taking the risk of sharing our worries with a trusted friend, our spouse, our doctor, a pastor, or a counselor we will likely find support, common ground and a measure of relief.
Talk to your kids. Recent events have affected young and old alike. Our children are particularly susceptible to unrealistic worries. Young kids have a hard time telling the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. Their "What if?" thinking can be especially vivid and upsetting for them. Listen to them, hold them, and reassure them. It’s not realistic to try to protect them from finding out what’s been going on in our world. They probably already know or soon will. Answer their questions truthfully in words they can understand. Tell them that they are safe and that you are "there" for them. Kids are keenly aware when a parent is fearful. Parents’ fears become a child’s worries. Thus, we can also help our kids by taking responsibility for and coping well with our own concerns.
Seek professional help when needed. Even though our society has become much more open in discussing matters of personal health, some people still hesitate to seek help for emotional concerns. Sadly, many people remain untreated and suffer needlessly. Anxiety is treatable. Success rates are high. If your own efforts and the support of loved ones have not succeeded in loosening the grip of fear, seriously consider professional help. Talk to your doctor or contact a local mental health professional if you have concerns about yourself, your child, or loved one.