Fears Won’t Kill You

I spend a lot of time in these pages talking about how you can change the way you feel about something by changing the way you think. I’m not talking about fooling yourself or rationalizing; I’m talking about considering the facts for what they actually are, and then allowing your feelings to follow suit. As an example, let’s get up-close and personal and talk about a (somewhat) irrational fear. Say, for example ‘ spiders. As a transplant from the city, most of my affiliation with these multi-legged beasts had been limited to paying my Terminix bill. Well, I guess what goes around comes around: Here at the beach, they are everywhere. Am I afraid of them? As a cognitive therapist, I have made it my business to internalize the fact that the majority of them can’t hurt me. I also appreciate the fact that (seemingly oblivious to my presence) they just continue going about their business ‘ or are they? In spite of all the logic, sometimes I can’t shake the idea that at least two of their eight little beady eyes are sizing me up for an uninvited pounce.

So, if I know they are mostly harmless, and that they do, in fact, benefit me by consuming annoying pests, then why do I still feel this way? Many of us hold on to fears that we know are irrational. We talk a good line, but behind closed doors we still fret about airplane travel, unlikely natural disasters, darkness, elevators, little bugs, ghosts, whatever.

Fear is defined as, ‘An unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, real or not. An extreme dislike of some condition or object.’ It is one of the most basic human emotions; one I hear people talk about more than any other emotional issue, including depression. Though many fears are justified and help keep us alive, irrational and unfounded fears are a drain on our psychological well being, and a waste of the limited, yet immensely valuable time we have on earth.

You can’t snap your fingers or take a pill to eliminate an irrational fear. But, at the same time, it doesn’t make sense to think that there’s nothing you can do. You can face your fears, and you can learn to let go of them. For example, I make myself look at the spiders — even the gigantic ones (how DO they get so big?) — and focus on some facts, such as no matter how much I look at one, it’s (probably) not going to attack me. It’s much more interested in spinning its web and catching bugs. The same can apply to other types of fears. If you’re afraid to fly, look up some facts about how planes work and why they make the various noises they do. This will give you a more objective and rational sense of what’s going on when you fly, and help you feel more in control. Facts can, and always do, trump irrational fears.

Does focusing on facts extinguish the fears completely? Not necessarily, and maybe not all at once. But over time, it helps, and it beats giving in to them. Think about the things that make you afraid or nervous. Maybe it’s airplanes. Or speaking in front of a group. Or maybe snakes. You’re probably never going to like or love these things, but you can at least learn to tolerate them.

The key is to become more objective about your fears. In other words, come to terms with the fact that just because you feel something, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Fear leads to avoidance. If the fear is rational, such as that of an oncoming truck, then of course it makes sense to act on the fear and avoid the truck. Fears like these are necessary for our survival. But if you suffer from a fear that you know to be irrational, then this is when you need to take corrective action. The first step is NOT to tell yourself that you’re powerless over the fear. Instead, tell yourself, ‘Just because I feel it, doesn’t make it so.’ It’s calmly reassuring to know that not every fearful feeling you have is valid. Getting into the habit of questioning your worst fears puts you back in control of your life.

A lot of people don’t realize how important it is to NOT resort to avoidant behavior when it comes to fear. It starts with spiders, the dark, or whatever, and ends up leading to all kinds of other things. The more you avoid something ‘just because,’ the more you reinforce to yourself that it’s best to withdraw from life rather than to experience it. As with the oncoming truck, harness your fears to avoid danger when it makes sense to do so. But don’t avoid anything and everything. If you do, then fear — instead of you — will end up ruling your life.