Enter Halloween: Facing the Demons: Fear exposure

Fear exposure: As we approach Halloween, the next few posts will address the issue of FEAR. Ma ha,ha,ha,ha!!

We all have fear. As I state in the book, courage is not the absence of fear but rather the ability to face our fears. However, as an emotionally phobic culture, we are afraid of fear. As Franklin Roosevelt so famously stated after the pearl harbor attack, “Man’s greatest fear is fear itself.” We have learned that fear is dangerous or perhaps a sign of personal weakness. We have also learned that if we allow fear it will “overwhelm us” and perhaps cause our circuits to overload creating a “nervous breakdown”. As such, we tend to avoid those cues which causes or is associated with fear and anxiety. This failure to emotionally expose ourselves to fear/anxiety eliciting cues, promotes the conservation and perpetuation of fear. And so we all have “demons” to face or we will spend our life being controlled by them.

Mindful emotional exposure of fear: Facing the demon

Fear comes in many forms and can be produced by a wide number of circumstances. A few examples are:

Fear of snakes, small animals, insects, electrical storms etc. Collectively, if the fear is so intense as to cause notable avoidant tendencies, these are diagnostically referred to as “simple phobias”.

Social anxieties: fear of public speaking, fear of any situation wherin one might be an object of public focus, judgement or scrutiny: parties, meetings, stage performances, athletic performances.

Fear of ones own thoughts, drives impulses. So for example, i have one patient who is terrified by “unclean” thoughts and images that she experiences, especially while in church. Others might experience such thoughts as “what if I swerve headlong into oncoming traffic?”

then there is the fear of fear: of having fear , anxiety or panic, especially in public places. This can become so intense so as to prevent one from entering into public places as in the case of “agoraphobia”.

When is fear/anxiety a problem?

Fear may become problematic when it is elicited by cues/settings, thoughts, events that are not in fact predictive of any real biological danger or threat.  We evolved the fear response to mobilize the biological resources necessary to effectively marshal the “flight or fight response. So when the brain recognizes a danger, a large array of biological changes occur to provide the energy and resources necessary to run or fight. This was very adaptive for our cavemen ancestors and thus was evolutionarily selected for. So now we are stuck with it. The problem for modern man, is that so many cues can elicit this response system that don’t in fact represent actual biological peril. The problem becomes maintained since we are so predisposed to avoid fear/anxiety eliciting cues, that our brain doesn’t get the opportunity to calibrate the actual reality that in fact no danger exists. Thus we are just left to stew in our neuronal and hormonal juices. With chronic activation of our arousal systems, secondary problems and behaviors often emerge. Chronic stress, arousal and anxiety can over time take a toll on our physiological and immunological systems and can contribute to a wide array of physical symptoms. Also, behaviorally, it can contribute to a host of avoidance behaviors that can directly and indirectly impact our lives. So avoiding college classes that may involve public speaking, getting drunk or high to be able to have “courage” in social settings, avoiding medical/dental procedures for fear of needles etc. etc. etc.

The good news, psychology has wonderful treatment techniques to help people with all manner of fear/anxiety. The bad news is that most of our tendencies is to try to control fear. That dog will never hunt. We need to learn to learn to lose control of fear and face the demon head on.

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