Hey friends! I hope you’re feeling well and I’m glad you’re here. I’m fresh off of a Smoky Mountains vacation and am excited for Halloween. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought we’d talk about a pretty basic and important emotion: fear.
It’s always been funny to me that some people are exhilarated by fear: they spend the season going to haunted houses and watching horrifying movies. I, on the other hand, watch Casper the Friendly Ghost and avidly avoid the haunted houses. But we have fear in our everyday lives too; we don’t always have to seek it out.
A basic emotion
If you haven’t watched Pixar’s 2015 movie, “Inside Out”, it’s a pretty cute depiction of our basic emotions: fear, anger, joy, sadness, and disgust. In the film, Fear is a skinny little purple guy whose entire existence is about predicting what terrible thing might happen in the future. It’s animated so all of the characters are a little silly-looking and they’re caricatures of the emotions they represent, but I think that can actually be a helpful tool.
Fear is often a huge exaggeration of potential harm. Think about going on a roller coaster. You’re in line and, if you’re like me, your central nervous system is telling you that you’re probably going to die.
If you could draw fear what would it look like? Really explore all sides of fear- is it silly sometimes in how over-dramatic it is (like in line for a roller coaster)?
- Is it really tiny and insecure?
- Can it be something that you find love in your heart for like a terrified little child?
- Is it an enemy- something that makes you enter fight-or-flight.
- If so, is it really really dangerous?
- Or does it just act big and dangerous?
Is my fear healthy?
Fear is so perfectly human and we owe it a little gratitude; it keeps us from doing really dangerous things. But if it gains too much power, it can prevent you from doing perfectly safe and fun, rewarding things. This is where the saying “feel the fear and do it anyway” comes into play.
It can be difficult to know when fear is healthy and when it’s becoming, pardon the expression, too big for its britches. When is it an over-reaction? Sometimes it’s clear (you’re not very likely to die on a roller coaster), but sometimes we’re not sure if our fear is real. For example, a common fear in people with depression and anxiety is that people just put up with us, don’t really like us, or are mad at us. When your brain focuses on things you dislike about yourself 70%+ of the time, it’s hard to suss out whether those fears are founded or not. If you don’t like yourself, it’s hard to believe anyone else does.
How to handle fear
So there are two real ways to handle this fear:
Use logic and thought swapping. Tell yourself that you’ve been through worse; remind yourself of all the strength you have. Weigh the odds of real danger and do not belittle yourself for having illogical fears! The correct way to thought swap is to replace the thought without shame. If you say “I can’t believe you’re worried about this- it’s so silly!”, you shaming yourself. And shame doesn’t lead to lasting change. Try instead to reassure yourself in a calm and caring way: “I know I feel afraid but that doesn’t mean that I’m actually in danger. I will be okay. I am safe”.
Use your body to tell your brain it’s not as scary as you’re being told it is. I wrote a post about the vagal nervous system but just to brush up, you have nerves that connect your body to your brain and they’re arranged in such a way that we know your body informs your brain through this nerve more than the other way around. So when your fear is primal (think wide eyes, can’t breathe, etc.), we’re best off using our body to tell our brain it’s okay- it’s safe. Take some deep, slow breaths. Laugh if you can (watch a silly youtube video). Breathe in to the count of 4 (6 if you can!) and out to the count of 8. Hug yourself tightly. Sway gently back and forth. You got this
That’s all fine and well but what happens when it actually is as scary as it seems? What do you do when you’re facing something that is terrifying for good reason (think abusive relationships, chronic illness, etc.)? Here are some clues:
- Don’t fight alone. You can be brave and still have a great support system. Find people willing to hold your hand and let you know they’re by your side. This can include a therapist.
- Keep breathing. If your diaphragm is moving slowly and in a controlled way, your brain is getting the message that you are loved in this moment and that we’re doing the best we can to survive.
- Work with your support system (especially a therapist) on a safety plan. How do we make this as safe as possible? For example, having a parent with dementia is scary for good reason. We can help reduce the fear by contingency planning for what happens when that parent starts to exhibit that they can’t live by themselves anymore. If it’s an abusive situation, how do we plan for somewhere to go if things become immediately unsafe?
- Do whatever you can to conjure strength. This might be praying or it might be visualizing someone or something that’s very strong and you want to be inspired by. It might be reading books about others who are strong and have fought similar battles.
- Examine your faith. Do you believe that things generally work out? Do you believe that whatever happens, you’re strong enough to find a way to make it “OK”? Holding these beliefs helps some people cope with really scary situations.
Enjoy the Holiday, friends! Challenge yourself to do something that scares you and find a way to ride out the fear if that’s normally a challenge for you. Be well!
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.