Help! I’m Afraid of Everything!

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I’m afraid of everything. I seriously mean everything. Spiders, clowns, heights, germs, dying, dogs, small spaces, large crowds, undercooked meats, darkness, terrorist attacks, natural disasters … I could go on. These irrational fears have been affecting my life for as long as I can remember, and I never seem to get over them. If anything, I only find new things I’m afraid of.

I did a ton of research to find a place to live that was least risky—no hurricanes, no tornadoes, unlikely earthquakes, the least number of bugs, etc. I’ve insulated myself as much as humanly possible. I’m still miserable and afraid.

Only a small number of these fears actually have roots in personal experiences. For instance, I was once bitten by a large dog, which explains my fear of dogs. But I have never been traumatized by a clown, never been caught in a violent attack, never experienced a natural disaster. I never had a negative experience in an elevator, but I have a panic attack almost every time I step foot in one.

Why do these things bother me so much? Is it possible to “cure” fears that have no basis in personal history? I want to live more freely and feel better about normal things and occurrences that should, at most, evoke minimal discomfort. Please help! —Dread Locked

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Dear Dread Locked,

You write that you are scared of everything and there is no reason for most of your fears. I disagree. I think you do have reasons, even if you may not be fully aware of them, and these reasons can be worked with.

Sure, if you’ve been bitten by a dog, it makes logical sense you’d be afraid of dogs—there’s a reason for the saying “once bitten, twice shy,” after all. But you don’t have to have been in an elevator, necessarily, to be afraid of elevators—claustrophobia (fear of being trapped in small places) and agoraphobia (fear of situations that might cause panic and feelings of helplessness) are both pretty common.

Some of the other fears you describe—fear of spiders (arachnophobia), fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of germs (mysophobia), fear of clowns (coulrophobia), fear of dying (thanatophobia), and fear of earthquakes (seismophobia)—are prevalent enough to have their own names, too.

You ask whether there is a cure. That’s a strong word, and while nothing is guaranteed, I feel confident in saying therapy can help you understand your fears better, which in turn may help you manage them in more effective and productive ways.

It’s telling to me that you describe your fears as irrational. If you look at these fears, you no doubt recognize they are about things and events that do sometimes happen or present problems in human experience, but remember: the brain is wired to protect itself. Consider your fear of dying, for instance. Would you agree most people fear death on some level? Fundamentally, fear of death is protective, as it is our brain telling us to make decisions that are in the best interests of its preservation. Your brain is in fact being rational, not irrational, when it tells you to, say, keep your distance from the edge of the cliff, or to slow down, or to not eat those two-week-old leftovers. (Thanks, brain!)

Some of these fears can also go along with emotional experiences—claustrophobia, for example, can be linked to early experiences. You may not have been stuck in an elevator at any point, but you may have a history of being stuck or trapped in other, perhaps figurative, more emotional ways. As a result, seeking and finding safety may have become paramount in your life. Based on the extent of your fears and the lengths to which you go to avoid feeling fearful, I imagine that being vulnerable—as we all are in one way or another—is not something that sits especially well with you.

Can you do anything about being fearful? Well, yes. I think your best bet would be to seek a therapist who specializes in helping people with anxiety, fear, and worry. Starting therapy can be scary too, of course, but working with someone who is grounded, accepting, and knowledgeable about how to help people in your situation is a fine step toward learning how to handle your feelings.

You say you’ve “insulated” yourself as much as “humanly possible,” but you are still afraid and “miserable.” Clearly, the actions you’ve taken to protect yourself, while well-intentioned, aren’t working for you. You yearn for some relief. You ask whether there is a cure. That’s a strong word, and while nothing is guaranteed, I feel confident in saying therapy can help you understand your fears better, which in turn may help you manage them in more effective and productive ways.

I salute you for identifying an issue that is blocking you. You’ve taken a fine first step by writing in and explaining your situation. I wish you well as you take the next step in addressing your fears by partnering with a qualified mental health professional.

Take care,

Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • 6 comments
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  • Verna M

    Verna M

    January 20th, 2017 at 1:23 PM

    I don’t even know how to respond to this because it is not up to me to tell you that all of these things are irrational when quite clearly they seem rational enough to you.
    I don’t know why you have all of these fears other than possibly something has happened to you in life that simply makes you afraid of living.
    The one thing that I do know is that life is too beautiful to continue to live in this kind of fear.
    there can be help and a new life for you and I applaud you for taking this first and I am sure scary step toward getting some help for yourself.

  • Casey

    Casey

    January 23rd, 2017 at 8:47 AM

    I agree that the reasons are probably there, you might not just be aware yet of what they are. Usually these things don’t develop out of thin air, but it might take you a little work to figure it all out. Good luck to you.

  • julia

    julia

    January 25th, 2017 at 10:31 AM

    Fear is not always rational, life isn’t always going to be rational and that’s ok as long as you can work out a safe way to cope with that irrationality from time to time.

  • Geary

    Geary

    January 26th, 2017 at 1:48 PM

    I guess if I felt like this I would have to stay home every day because there would be danger around every corner. I don’t know how you continue to manage to have a life because this sounds like it could get so overwhelming.

    Please don’t think that I am being critical, it’s really more of a concern and I would know how that kind of fear would probably cause me to never leave the house.

    I hope that you can get some resolution with your issues.

  • ted

    ted

    January 27th, 2017 at 7:58 AM

    You are missing out on so much

  • Anna

    Anna

    February 23rd, 2017 at 12:06 PM

    How is this helpful?

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