Great article on addressing fear.
Emotions, in general:
Let’s first look at ’emotions’ in general. Most people confuse emotions with thoughts and/or physiological sensation. A person might ask, “tell me more about your feelings of fear?” And common responses include thoughts such as, “I am afraid she will die” or “I am terrified the seizures will return” or “I am anxious to know what to expect”. Other common responses include physiological descriptions such as, “My stomach is upset all the time”, or “I am so worried I just can’t sleep”, or “I am so overwhelmed with anxiety my hands won’t stop shaking.” None of these responses actually answers the question about feelings; again, they are thoughts about the fear and physiological consequences of the fear but don’t actually address the fear itself.
Why is this so common? Because it is very difficult to talk about the emotion itself. In fact, emotions are very illusive once you remove the thoughts and physiological experiences of them. Let’s be clear, all three are intricately connected but they are different and need to be handled differently. You cannot think your way out of an emotion. You won’t stop worrying (an emotion) just because you tell yourself “worrying won’t help so stop it” (a thought). Yet, you can change your thinking, which changes your perspective, which then can change a feeling. And this is an affective tool. BUT, does not address the original emotion.
The specific emotion of fear:
Let’s look at the definition of fear: “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined”. The key word in that definition is impending. In other words, whatever you are afraid of hasn’t happened yet. Fear is actually a future based emotion. Let’s take phobias, extreme fears, for instance the fear of heights. A person with the fear of heights who is on a ladder would argue against this point saying very clearly they are feeling fear in this moment. Indeed, they are feeling fear in that moment. But what they are really afraid of is falling, which has not happened. Afraid of spiders, snakes, creep crawls things…yes, but afraid of what those creepy crawly things will do to them…bite them, slime them, give them cooties, which hasn’t happened yet.
Because whatever you fear hasn’t actually happened, you can’t do much about it. You can do some prevention and/or preparation. But because the problem/issue that is feared hasn’t actually unfolded you cannot begin to manage it. Fear often creates a state of helplessness because of this inability to take action. Living the fear is often worse than once the fear manifests. Once it does manifest than you can go into action mode and do something about it. Worrying about it, fearing it makes the body and brain pretend like it has already happened but with an inability to do anything about it.
Proactively managing emotions, specifically fear:
The general anecdote to all emotions is to allow yourself to feel them. Our brains, our culture, our fragile egos, and our lack of proper education regarding emotions has us do everything except allow ourselves to feel our emotions without dramatizing, minimizing, defending, projecting, deflecting, intellectualizing, rationalizing, denying, or otherwise inflating or deflating them. The key is to learn to separate the physiological experience of the emotion and the thoughts describing the emotions and the story (more thoughts) that create the emotion and get in touch with the actually feeling. It’s slippery, like trying to grab a drop of oil from a cup of water. And learn to just be with the feeling. It’s very unsatisfying for most people who want to ‘do something’. This feels like ‘doing nothing’. But try it and you will be surprised at the result. At first, the emotion will feel like it gets bigger because you just put your attention on it. But keep your focus on the feeling and only the feeling and nothing else and it will decrease – not go away but decrease.
This is vital because the brain actually changes the way it functions when emotions are ‘high’ vs when they are ‘low’. When emotions are running high/intense the brain becomes “Emotionally Hijacked” (a phrase coined by Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence). The brain goes into survival mode and treats the “perceived threat” literally as if it were life or death. You don’t often realize this is happening – but you can train yourself to realize it – until after the ‘threat’ is over. Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did I do that?”, “What was I thinking? That was crazy.” That’s because you were in a state of Emotional Hijacking and then you got out of it. Once out of it, you see things differently because your brain is functioning differently – it is no longer in survival mode.
It is easy to get Emotional Hijacked with fear. Fear is a powerful emotion. By learning to be with the fear rather than trying to get rid of the feeling, get rid of the potential threat (which you most likely cannot do), or get out of dealing with the problem if it were to happen, goes a long way towards preventing Emotional Hijacking and/or getting yourself out of being hijacked once you are there. While you are hijacked you are not thinking rationally. You cannot deal with the thoughts that are fueling the fear while you are hijacked.
The thoughts that fuel the fear:
Ultimately, the thoughts behind the fear that are so painful is either, “I can’t handle this” or “I don’t want to handle it”. If you had the confidence to handle whatever is feared and the unresistant willingness to handle it, then you would not feel fear. For example, I am not afraid of my daughter’s seizure. I know what I can (and cannot do) to manage them and I manage them willingly. I do not fear her seizures. In contrast, I do fear that if the seizures get worse then they will cause regression in her progress. In other words, I don’t think I could handle it if she were to lose some the precious progress she has made. Moreover, I don’t want to have to handle it. Hence, I have fear around regression.
When people say they are afraid of something they have to look closely at the specific thoughts they are having that fuel the fear. More than likely they are not afraid of what they think they are afraid of. In the example above, I might have said, “I fear her seizures getting worse.” But as I get deeper into the thoughts behind the fear I am not concerned about the seizures getting worse if they don’t negatively impact her. In actuality, I am afraid of regression not seizures.
Once you get clear on what is actually feared then there are two things to do. First, see if there is any problem solving, planning or prevention that can be done. In my example, if my daughter regresses there isn’t much I can do about it. I can increase her therapies, we will work on controlling the seizures, which caused the regression. But, not much more. Secondly, is to develop courage; courage is the antedote to fear. Why is that? Because the thoughts that fuel courage say, “In the face of my emotional discomfort and maybe even in the face of not knowing how, I can handle this and I will handle this.”
I hope you found something of value in this response. Let me know if you have any questions or would like a free consultation for resilience coaching.
Kelly Kay Wynn, MS, MSW, LCSW
Resilience Coach & mom of a special needs daughter (with Pachygyria)
310-749-6568 Central time zone