When fear is temporary, it can be an ally. When it takes over, it can interfere with peace and happiness. Fear is a normal and natural part of life, without which our chances of survival would be greatly diminished. However, when fears are irrational, persistent, or intense, our level of happiness and our ability to function can be compromised. Fear is a signal that our well-being is threatened; if this is the case, fear tells us we need to act. But sometimes, we are afraid when there is really no threat. Such irrational fears may be covering over deeper fears and needs that we can discover and examine in therapy. Persistent phobias, which can be terrifying and debilitating, can be overcome through the work of therapy. Sometimes, we may feel afraid and not be certain why, or not be clear whether our fears are realistic. Talking about your fear in therapy can help clarify these issues.
- Body: Trembling, racing heart, burning stomach, tension in muscles and belly, headaches, crying, rapid shallow breathing, restlessness, temporary paralysis, and/or sweaty palms.
- Mind: Repeating thoughts, terrifying images, and/or distracting thoughts.
- Emotions: Terror, anger, despair, and/or numbness.
Feeling fear may be quite unpleasant, but attempting to suppress fearful emotions will probably not help. Instead, allowing yourself to feel your fear, taking a few deep breaths, and beginning to rationally examine your fears can help. Most people are at least a little afraid of death. Examining your attitude towards death can be helpful in managing fears.
A few good questions to ask yourself about fear are:
- What am I afraid of?
- Is this fear realistic?
- What, really, is the worst that can happen? And what can I do protect myself from that outcome?
- Where in my body do I feel fear? How do I feel when I take a few deep breaths?
Fear can be expressed as anxiety, worry or stress. Some people experience extreme fear as phobias or paranoia. Psychotherapy can help people manage their fear by first putting those fears into perspective. People who are fearful sometimes have unrealistic expectations for situations that cause them fear. People who are fearful of water may believe they will drown because they do not know how to swim. People who fear rejection may believe everyone around them will not like them and may overcompensate, thus pushing people away. Whether the beliefs are unfounded or not, they are very real to the individual with the fear.
Therapy can address the fears by empowering the client. Learning how to swim will remove the fear of drowning. Understanding that overcompensating can cause rejection makes the client aware of their role in the problem. This knowledge allows a person to transform their behaviors and engage in new behaviors that will reduce the likelihood of their fears being realized. Additionally, therapy for fear helps clients recognize triggers and teaches skills for managing fear when it arises.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), anxiety disorders often involve some kind of fear. Phobias involve specific fears, such as fears of snakes or social situations. Schizophrenia, which can include paranoid thoughts, may cause people to feel afraid of others. Schizophrenia can also include delusions, which may involve frightening themes, and hallucinations, which can be frightening. Sometimes, fear is an aspect of depression, for example a fear of death, being alone, or being a failure.
Kurt, 37, reports feeling afraid of “almost everything.” He has taken time off from work because he is scared to go out in public. Loud noises cause his heart to race. He barely sleeps. The therapist teaches Kurt some simple meditation techniques to help him calm down enough for conversation in therapy. Then Kurt and the therapist discuss Kurt’s fears rationally. All of Kurt’s fears eventually lead to a fear of death. Kurt is relieved to know that most people fear dying, and begins to work on making peace with this inevitable reality.
Daisy, 21, is afraid of men. She identifies a past experience as the root cause of this; when she was 11, she was assaulted by an older cousin and has never gotten over it. Daisy is referred to a support group for survivors of abuse, which she finds comforting. She also begins to explore how her fears fail to keep her safe, and prevent her from developing positive relationships. She identifies several men she respects and does not fear. She is able to talk openly about her fears, and this in itself provides some relief. Daisy also discovers her latent anger at her attacker, and feels more empowered to take care of herself.
Do you have a personal story about coping with fear or overcoming debilitating fear in your own life? If you are a writer or blogger and would like to share your story with a wide audience of others who may share similar experiences with fear, please consider submitting your original story to GoodTherapy.org's Share Your Story. Selected stories will be featured on The Good Therapy Blog.
Last updated: 07-03-2015