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Coping with Fear

When I was a kid, I struggled with your typical childhood fears, the dark, spiders, Fruma Sarah from Fiddler on the Roof (oh, that was just me?).  As with most developmental stages, I emerged relatively unscathed, although I still do experience the occasional fright.  With Halloween rapidly approaching, what better time to discuss where fear comes from, and how to cope with it!

  • What are the differences between fear, phobias, and anxiety?  Folks tend to use these words interchangeably, so it’s understandable that some confusion exists around these words and their meanings.  Fear is an emotion that we experience in response to frightening stimuli.  When my cat leaps out of bed at 3am, and begins meowing at empty space, I experience a rush of fear; pounding heart, sweaty palms, and a slew of thoughts telling me that he sees a burglar rather than the more rational explanation that he is a cat, and this is what cats do. Anxiety is also an emotion, but tends to be less acute than a fear response.  A phobia develops once we begin to associate a particular thing with our fear response.  Common phobias include (but are certainly not limited to) airplane travel, insects, snakes, clowns.  As with most psychological disorders, a phobia is diagnosed when someone’s fear begins to interfere with their social, occupational, familial, and/or academic functioning.  To learn more about specific phobias, check out the this article from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
  • Some of our fears may be biologically hardwired:  If you look at fear from an evolutionary standpoint, it made a lot of sense for our early ancestors to fear things like the dark and strange animals.  Those who had a healthy fear of those things and situations likely survived to reproduce, meaning that those of us alive today may have our genes to thank for making us more susceptible to develop certain types of phobias.
  • Your attempts to deal with your phobias just might be making them worse:  Our early ancestors may have been wise to deal with their phobias by avoiding spending time alone in dark places, or not approaching that wild boar, but our tendency to avoid the things that make us feel fearful only serves to perpetuate the fear.  Let’s say you have a fear of flying.  Every time that you choose to avoid flying on a plane, the idea that the avoidance keeps you safe is reinforced.  Additionally, you miss out on the opportunity to learn that flying is not dangerous, and that you will habituate to the feeling of fear over time, with repeated exposure.   Click here to learn more about exposure therapy!
  • Here are some steps you can take today to cope with fear!  
    • Face your fear in baby steps.  If you’ve completely stopped flying in planes, start by watching videos of planes taking off and landing on YouTube, and gradually move on to more challenging tasks.
    • Learn relaxation strategies and make them a part of your daily routine. Lowering your overall levels of anxiety will make you less susceptible to fear!
    • If you’re in a situation where your phobia is in charge and not you, it may be time to seek professional help.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective treatment for phobias.

I hope that this information helps you to address your fears, whether they’re of things that go bump in the night, or terrifying Broadway Show characters.  Happy Halloween, and thanks for reading!

Dr. Scrivani specializes in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York and Florida.  Call (888) 535-5671 or email [email protected]  Visit Dr. Scrivani’s iTherapy webpage to learn more.

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