Halloween is the time of year when being afraid is a cool and fun ongoing activity. For some of us, it is the only time in our lives where we look forward to feeling scared and afraid, and it falls into a set time and space every year. Some of us even seek out the adrenaline rush of thrills such as theme parks and haunted houses at this time of year! (Not me. No thank you.)
Outside of festivities and hijinks, however, we avoid fear at all costs. It makes sense; being afraid is not a pleasant experience. Regardless of its function and purpose – for example, alerting us to an unsafe situation – fear is almost never experienced as a positive sensation. We learn quickly what makes us uncomfortable, and stop dead in our tracks when we approach anything regarding that sensation.
Nevertheless, despite our attempts to avoid fear, its manifestation as worry, anxiety and/or stress has a tendency to derail our happiness, and subvert our goals. There is no magic spell we can cast in our lives to make everything that scares us go away. To cope with this, we try to circumvent it. Ironically, our avoidance of fear can have the same negative impact on our lives. By letting our notions of possible outcomes run wild in our imaginations, we can find ourselves stuck in place, unable to make decisions, take chances, or move forward. The idea of fear is what hurts us, rather than the fear itself.
Why Do We Avoid Fear?
1) Fear is uncomfortable:
You may think that it goes without saying, but you might not know just how uncomfortable we find fear. Fear isn’t just something we don’t want to experience or something unpleasant we go through. Fear is so undesirable that we would forfeit joy for the opportunity to subvert it. In fact, research has shown that we do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. You read that right: rather than putting our efforts and attention into the building and facilitating joy, we put them into simply avoiding negative experiences. Nobody wants to be sweaty, short of breath, and shaky. Especially not in high-stakes situations, like everyone watching you or when trying to do your job.
It makes sense that we experience so many physical symptoms of distress when we are afraid, as fear is hard on the body. Stress from elevated breath rate and heart rate, overproduction of adrenal hormones and cortisol, and the spike of glucose in the blood is not the way the human body wants to live. Our bodies strive for homeostasis (relatively stable conditions) at all times. It has been found that fear and stress weaken the immune system; rare incidents can be overcome, but being afraid all the time quickly becomes an ongoing health crisis.
2) Fear hijacks joy:
Fear of the unknown can cage us in our old routines, preventing us from trying new things. We may miss out on foods and activities that we would have enjoyed, jobs we would be great at, cities we would feel at home in, and a multitude of other happiness in our attempts to avoid new (and therefore scary) experiences.
How often are you in the middle of feeling joy or happiness, and your brain quickly thinks of a fearful situation. How often are you feeling accomplished, then suddenly imagine all the times you’ve gone wrong in the past, and how you could again. For example, you are walking out of a job interview feeling pretty good about it, when out of the blue, you remember all the minor mistakes you think you made. Or you are enjoying spending time with your family but quickly worry about something bad happening to them.
As you work toward being happy and content in your life and find fears hijacking your emotions, you may wonder what the point in trying is. This can feel frustrating and senseless. If you are experiencing a loss or lack of joy due to fear and anxiety, depression therapy in Woodland Hills, CA, can help you create personal goals for managing the overwhelming emotions you may be facing.
3) Fear breeds a negative headspace:
When you are experiencing fear, it is difficult to be confident. Living in a fearful state breeds self-doubt, which is unpleasant and counterproductive. The longer you spend ruminating and worrying, the harder it becomes to let go of that thinking and boost yourself back up. In this cycle, you may begin to pick on yourself, bullying yourself over your emotions and your reaction to them.
All or nothing thinking, i.e., black or white thinking, thrives in a fearful headspace. Rather than taking time to have calm and measured thoughts about situations, we view everything in simplistic life-or-death terms. A fearful state is a straight line to panic and stress, where there is no room for any gray areas. This sort of catastrophic thinking continues to thrive as we make rash decisions or isolate ourselves through erratic behavior that our loved ones cannot comprehend.
Fear has a way of magnifying the negatives and minimizing the positives. In our heightened emotional state, we are quick to see threats. This is because the physical response that fear generates in the body doesn’t discriminate between fear of making a mistake at work or fear of a predator that endangered our ancestors thousands of years ago. It is the same autonomic response. We are focused on obstacles and dangers, and soon they become all we see.
While it is common and understandable to struggle with navigating fear, that doesn’t mean that it is an inevitable state of being. Anxiety treatment in Woodland Hills can help you combat the rumination and worry that perpetuates a fearful state. With the guidance and support of a mental health care provider, you can work through fear responses and begin to build a healthier outlook. When fear hijacks your life’s joy, it can undo or stall progress, negatively impact personal relationships, and lead to physical, mental, and emotional distress. Overcoming fear and anxiety takes time, action, practice, and patience.
How to Overcome Fear and Anxiety:
1) Feel the fear and do it anyway:
Our typical response to fear is avoidance, whether that means we avoid people, places, or things. However, the more we avoid something, the more we signal back to our brain that the original trigger was threatening. Your avoidance behavior implies that the fear trigger was a threat to you, regardless of how true that is.
Whether you are afraid of heights or a relationship, your brain concludes that the trigger must be avoided moving forward. It sends every signal imaginable to your body
to keep you away from that trigger so that any attempt to approach your fear is a literal battle with yourself.
To combat this wiring, we have to undo what we have learned and rewire the brain through exposure. How do we conquer a fear of heights? We stand at higher and higher elevations. How do we conquer fear of dating? We date. (In whatever manner of COVID-safe protocols we feel comfortable with.)
This doesn’t mean that if we are afraid of fire, we run into a burning building. It means we take time to evaluate and explore what scares us and do the work to eliminate as many fears as possible. This process is a great way to break us out of old habits and routines and build everyday confidence. When we turn fear and anxiety into a drive to face things and take risks, we have new experiences and learn more about ourselves. This doesn’t mean that every fear we take on will magically change into something we love doing – but it could! We hear all kinds of tales from people who were afraid of public speaking, so they joined Toastmasters; or people who are scared of spiders, so they hold a tarantula (large spiders with very weak venom). These tactics may seem extreme to you, but they are proven actions!
2) Change your inner dialogue:
The way you think affects the way you act. When you are avoiding doing something, it is because of the story you are telling yourself about that action or task. Behind your avoidance, you have limiting beliefs such as, “I can’t handle it,” or, “It is too much.” Of course, you will have to talk to yourself about situations. Sometimes, they might be very tricky and require a lot of strategies. But the point is to approach your strategizing from a place of problem-solving instead of talking to yourself about a failure that you have decided is inevitable. Break your task down into pieces that are small enough to handle. The smaller the piece, the smaller the fear. Tackle each piece with curiosity and optimism. Ask yourself questions, such
as “What if I succeed?” or “What if that person agrees with me?” Open your mind up to the possibility that you are destined to do well. It’s not an overnight switch or an immediate change.
Because success is not a straight line, there is a high probability that not every attempt will be a triumph. Speak to yourself kindly about that as well, “I might not get this right, and that’s okay. I can always try again,” or, “I am learning a lot through trial and error.”
Emotional Reasoning is another aspect of how emotions affect thoughts. When we feel an emotion, we tend to assume there is a reason behind it and find ways to justify our feelings. For example, when you notice that you are feeling anxious about a job interview, you are more likely to think, “They won’t like me,” or, “I am not prepared enough or qualified enough,” or, “It is not going to go well.” These are examples of how we let our anxiety and fear dictate our perception. In order to challenge it, we have to be able to say, “Just because I am anxious doesn’t mean I am not qualified or worthy of this opportunity.”
3) Practice mindfulness:
Mindfulness is the act of staying in the present moment. It is an ongoing practice that can be explored in various ways, including sensory observations, meditation, journaling, and more.
Be non-judgmental. When a feeling arises, notice it and note it without attaching feelings of pride, or shame to it. Observe it impartially.
Let go of your need to control. While there is something to be said for mindset, the universe cannot always bend to your will. Nothing will pull you out of the present moment like ruminating on the past and attempting to calculate how to manipulate the future. This doesn’t mean that you give up working towards your goals; it means you accept that you can only control your actions and mindset. You cannot take charge of others or of happenstance.
Set intentions for yourself when it comes to staying
mindful. These intentions can include wishes and/or hopes we have for our lives, guiding principles, or specific ideas. For example, in a stressful situation, we might call upon a specific idea, such as, “I will do my best to remain calm and focused.” However, throughout the day, we might prefer to utilize guiding principles, such as asking ourselves if what we are doing is productive, if we are being gentle with ourselves and/or others, or if we feel that our attitude reflects our best selves.
Practicing gratitude can be a helpful tool in remaining mindful and present. Take the time to journal daily, or keep a note in your phone of the things you are grateful for throughout the day. Being on a mission to identify something to write down can be an excellent motivator that keeps us focused on experiencing our lives in real-time.
We all know that not all fears are created equal. Sometimes, we fear things that we know cannot harm us if we think about them logically. And there is a difference between fear and phobia, though there are treatment options for phobias as well. Our early childhood experiences may have shaped what we fear or worry about, and that discomfort may have been upheld through
incidents over time. It may take years to undo years’ worth of data. It may only, it turns out, only take a few goods turns of luck or fate to change our perspective, even if only enough to shift our willingness to be optimistic and explore. Fear that is in place for a reason, such as fear of bodily harm or mountain lions, exists for a purpose. But fear and anxiety that hold us back from pursuing our dreams, chasing our goals, or even living peaceful and content lives, are feared to be investigated and eliminated. Be kind to yourself as you work through them. They may have served a purpose in your past, but they do not belong in your future.
Other Services at Embracing You Therapy
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije, Cindy Sayani, AMFT, Ani Seferyan AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns including panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression, Codependency, and Addiction.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinator.