There are two types of fear – true and false – and they need to be managed differently. To illustrate: if you see a large angry man with a knife coming at you while walking in the park you will be afraid. This is a true fear. You will respond by trying to defend yourself, running away or hiding (the fight or flight response). You survive the fearful incident but later on, may become fearful whenever you see an angry man or maybe, if you see a butcher sharpening his knives. Your fear may prevent you walking in the park. These are false fears as they arise from your imagination building on the frightening experience in the park. You may be aware of this connection but the fear will still feel the same. Whatever the cause of the fear, true or false, you may respond in the same way – so it can be hard to distinguish the one from the other. Sometimes fears are based on experiences that you have forgotten about or do not connect with the episode that currently makes you fearful. Sometimes feeling anxious may be caused by fear so as well as learning to manage anxiety you may need to do something about the underlying fear or you will never properly manage your anxiety.
You respond to true fear either by directly facing it, seeking to overcome it, or by escaping, seeking safety and security. Either way, you will behave bravely, sensibly and logically so that you make a balanced and appropriate response to a threatening situation. You may have used true fear to train children to cross the road safely and you respond to true fear when taking precautions to protect your home from fire or burglary or your digital devices from being hacked. True fear relates to the fear you have of upsetting someone you love (such as spouse or parents). It is at the root of the respect shown to leaders such as the Queen or those who have power over you (employer, police, magistrates, inland revenue). In this case the fear does not elicit a defensive reaction, unless you have something to hide. The more natural response is alertness to their presence and respect for their needs and wishes so you obey, anticipate what they require of you and do what you can to please them. Some people get upset at the idea that God expects us to fear him, as featured in the Bible. If God were a pussy cat that would be fair but if God is God and has ultimate authority and power then fear is an entirely appropriate response. True fear is normal. It is protective and is a natural and proper response in certain circumstances.
False fears may well start as true fears but they are overlaid by anxiety and are affected by memories of previous fearful situations or other people’s stories. Notice I use the plural now as false fears rarely come alone. Even the ‘phobias’ (that is just the Greek word for fear) that refer to specific fears such as claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders) invariably occur in someone who is prone to fearfulness or relate to specific incidents in the past. Instead of facing and dealing with the fear or running away from it, you will tend to freeze, physically and/or emotionally. You will stop thinking and planning. Such a reaction may shock and embarrass you and that adds to the trauma. It is an altogether horrible situation so you will do anything to avoid a recurrence. You hide, physically or emotionally, do not talk about it and try to avoid thinking about it. However, it is impossible not to think about it! That adds to your fear and sense of helplessness so you are sucked into a distressing spiral. You are trapped and feel powerless. Does that sound familiar?
Occasionally, and this reaction may be related to temperament and character rather than the fear itself, your focus may be so strong on what you fear and imagine that it overwhelms your ability to make a proper assessment of the situation. For example, on your next walk in the park you may attack an innocent passer-by thinking that he was preparing to attack you. Or if you are a ‘flighter’ rather than a fighter your fear may prevent you walking in the park and if it continues unchecked it can dominate your life so you end up being housebound.
Whatever your reaction, join the club! Fearfulness is ever so common but as many of us do not talk about it, no one knows. It is a very private club. However, you may give some clues about your fears to those who are observant or recognise their own reaction in your behaviour.
Avoiding situations because of fear or taking alcohol or drugs to help cope are not good strategies (see Strategies that Do Not Work). It is better to face fear – just as you deal with real fears – but this is not so easy and you may need help and guidance.
Here is how you need to respond.
When you are going through a good phase in life with stresses controlled and life peaceful, choose to be in a quiet, relaxed and safe place and allow yourself to think about something you fear – a small fear, not a large one. As you do this, inevitably, you will feel fearful. Do not fight it. How can a false fear harm you? Think of that. You are not in danger, though you feel as if you are. Now is the time to use the relaxation techniques you have been practising. Allow the feeling to wash over you. Let your body relax. Breathe slowly and gently. The feeling will pass. You will survive. When you first do this you will be shaken emotionally and physically. Do not complain or get irritated about how awful you feel. Just accept it. Rest peacefully and gradually you will recover. Later, do this again and keep doing it at intervals and allow yourself to face increasingly stronger feelings of fearfulness. Eventually, your self-confidence will grow as you realise you are in charge and you can control the feelings of fear. Now you can begin to deal with the causes of your fear.
You may be amazed by what happens next. Your fears have gone! Well, maybe not all of them; some of them at least. Simply knowing how to deal with the feelings of fear gives you authority over your fears. You are in control!
Stress SelfCare is alive and active!
For those fears that remain, name them.
Make a list.
Talk about them to someone you trust.
Think about what life would be like without them.
When you are ready start planning how you are going to deal with them.
Take your list and put them in order of severity from small fears that can be brushed aside to major fears that are impossible to manage. Leave the major fears alone for now. Start with the less troublesome fears, those at the bottom of your list, and meet whatever it is that makes you afraid. You can do this in your imagination at first and later even in reality. As your confidence grows and you cope, work up your list until you can cope with your worst fear.
This can be done alone but it is much better if you do it with someone else so you can encourage each other. Alternatively have a mentor or friend to whom you can report from time to time. It may take ages but somewhere in the process make your mind up you are not going to be controlled by fear (and other negative emotions) but will be positive. Work to your strengths.
You will still face fear in your life. We all do. It is inevitable. But now you know what to do:
Face fear as soon as it occurs.
Let your body and mind relax.
Decide you are not going to be ruled by fear.
As the feeling of fear passes examine what caused it.
Think it over, write notes, discuss with a close friend.
What actually were you afraid of?
What was the worst thing that could happen if your fears were realised?
How likely is that?
What else might happen?
Was anything else happening in your life that may have contributed to you being afraid?
Respond to the situation in a positive way. Move on. Fill your life with real and positive things. Do not let a fearful imagination take control.
Fear can be exceedingly difficult to deal with on your own. Do not despair. You may need professional help and it is available. Discuss the situation with your doctor. A behavioural psychologist or another professionally trained counsellor may be available in the community and certainly will be available within the Mental Health Trust.