Avoidance NOT the Way to Curb Irrational Fear! (DE Wave)

‘Tiz the season for goblins, ghosts and whatever else might strike a little fear (and maybe some fun) into the Halloween season! Pretty much everyone has something that they simply do not want to touch or otherwise encounter in the dark. For some it’s snakes. For others it might be a little mouse. Or maybe sushi….

One example of a (somewhat) irrational fear might be … well, let’s say, 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, 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 that they go about their business, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Or are they? In spite of all the logic, sometimes I think that at least three of their eight beady little eyes are sizing me up for an uninvited pounce.

Yes, I know they are mostly harmless, and that they benefit me by consuming annoying pests. But many of us hold on to fears that we know are irrational. We talk a good line, but behind closed doors we fret about airplane travel, unlikely natural disasters, darkness, elevators, little bugs, ghosts, whatever.

Fear 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 our valuable time.

You can’t snap your fingers or take a pill to eliminate an irrational fear. But you can stand up and face your fears, and you can learn to let go of them. For example, I make myself look at spiders — even the gigantic ones (how DO they get so big?!), and focus on the fact that, 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. 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 it. 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 this puts you back in control.

When it comes to fear, don’t resort to avoidance. It starts with spiders or the dark, and ends up leading to all sorts 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, 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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