I spend a lot of time writing about how you can change the way you feel by changing the way you think. In other words, considering the facts as they actually are and then allowing your feelings to follow suit. As an example, let’s 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 Orkin 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 they just continue going about their business, seemingly oblivious to my presence ‘ or are they? In spite of all the logic, sometimes I can’t shake the idea that at least two of their eight beady little eyes are sizing me up for an unsolicited pounce.
So, if I know they are mostly harmless, and that they 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 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 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 valuable time we have on earth.
You can’t snap your fingers or take a pill to eliminate an irrational fear. But 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 stare at one, it’s (probably) not going to attack me. It’s much more interested in doing whatever it does. The same applies to other fears. If you’re afraid to fly, look up some facts about how planes work. This will give you a more objective sense of what’s going on when you fly and help you feel more in control. Facts always trump irrational fears.
Does focusing on facts extinguish the fears completely? Not necessarily, but over time it helps, and it beats giving in to them. Think about the things that make you afraid, like speaking in front of a group. Or maybe snakes. You’re probably never going to love these things, but you can at least learn to tolerate them.
The key is to become more objective. 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 it. But if you suffer from an irrational fear, 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 reassuring to know that not every fear you have is valid. Learning to question your fears puts you back in control of your life.
When it comes to fear, don’t resort to avoidance. It starts with spiders or the dark, 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.
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