Fears – we all know someone who has them. Maybe we have them ourselves. Perhaps it’s a fear of spiders or snakes. Maybe it’s a fear of swimming or flying. We hear of fears like this so commonly that many of us don’t think twice when we hear about them. We may even accept them as a part of life that is just here to stay. But is that the case or can these fears be overcome and put to rest? If they can be overcome, how is that done?
Many people embrace their fears as a core part of themselves that is just never going to change – and they are vocal and public about their fears. Not long ago, as I was perusing Facebook, I noticed a friend had posted her fearful reaction to having found a spider at home. A long list of comments followed by folks agreeing with her fear or teasing her about it. Her responses made it apparent that the fear was here to stay – at least for now, and she had plenty of folks supporting her in keeping it that way.
Other folks live with their fears, but question if it always has to be this way. These people imagine life without their fear but are not sure if they could ever actually overcome it. An example of this is a mother who has a fear of swimming. It stems from a time as a child that she was pushed into a pool and panicked. She has never gone in a body of water again (well, except to shower, that is). She watches her two children play in the water at the beach and wishes she could join them in their fun. She also worries that she cannot help them if they get into trouble, so she always makes sure a lifeguard is around.
Of course there are other ways people think about their fears, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just focus on these here. So what about these two examples? Are they always stuck with their fears? Can they be overcome? Should they be overcome? Here’s my take on it. Unless something is a problem, it’s not a problem.
Have I confused you? What could I possibly mean by this? What I mean is that a fear is probably not a problem unless a person perceives it as causing a problem in their life. In the spider example, the woman is not really bothered by her fear. She can generally avoid spiders with little consequence to how she lives her life. When she does encounter the occasional arachnid, she has friends and family who are not afraid of them and who can take care of the problem. No big deal. Unless she has a big desire to challenge herself and get over the fear, she probably will choose, happily, to continue in this way.
The woman with the fear of swimming is a different situation. Her fear of getting into the water is keeping her from doing something she would really like to do – swim with her children and join in the fun. She also feels bad that she cannot help if her children get into a bad situation in the water and so she must wait for another swimming adult to be present before she can allow them to swim. She could go on and continue in this way. However, unlike the woman with the fear of spiders, she does perceive her fear of swimming to be a problem. She just doesn’t know what to do about it. She occasionally reaches out to others to ask how she can get over this. She might change it if she did know what to do.
If you are wondering at this point what creates a fear, simply put, fears can be created in all sorts of ways. They can develop if we experience a frightening event that involves the feared item or situation (e.g., falling into a swimming pool, not knowing how to swim and panicking). They can also develop if the feared item or situation is present at a traumatizing event (e.g., if we witness an accident while traveling on a freeway, we may develop a fear of freeways). It is also possible to develop a fear because someone we care about has the same fear (e.g., a mother is afraid of dogs and, through her own behavior, encourages the development of such a fear in her children).
But what does a person do about a fear? I’ve been asked this question many times. More important than understanding what created the fear, we must understand what maintains a fear. Generally speaking, fears are maintained by avoidance.
Imagine that a boy is scared by a dog one morning on his way to school. His heart races, his pulse pounds, and he breaks into a sweat as he runs away. Now, let’s say that afternoon, he has to pass by that dog again to get back home. Is he likely to walk confidently right by that house, or is it possible he might walk on the other side of the street, or on a different street altogether? If he chooses a path that keeps him away from the dog, he is likely to experience relief – dangerous situation averted. Whew! Now if he chooses each subsequent day to avoid the dog, his behavior is reinforced by the relief he experiences – and by the absence of the fear reaction. If he ever decides to walk by that dog again, it will probably be with great amounts of anxiety.
Now, let’s compound the situation and say that our young man sees a dog on another day that looks just like the original dog that frightened him. He starts to feel his heart pound and he can’t catch his breath. He doesn’t wait to find out if this is the same dog; instead, he bolts in the other direction. Once he perceives that he is “safe” he finds relief. Now, he starts to avoid the place he just encountered this dog and avoids any dog that looks like this one (or perhaps he avoids all dogs of this size, or any dogs at all).
The point is, all this avoiding the situation helps to reinforce his fear. If he avoids the situation, then he can avoid feeling any fear. Perhaps to him it is a small price to pay. But he is missing out on the opportunity to be able to move about the world more freely. What he has not had to chance to learn is that if he had never avoided the original situation in the first place, his body would have naturally adjusted and his fear would have reduced greatly (if not completely).
Our bodies are amazingly adaptive. They have the ability to adjust to a myriad of situations. Just think about the first time you tried a new exercise. The next day you were aching and could barely move that body part. The next time you did the exercise you didn’t ache as much and there quickly came a time that you didn’t ache at all. You wondered if you were still doing the exercise right. Or consider a cold swimming pool. When you first get in, it feels like a shock to your system. You wonder what you are doing in there. If you stay in for a little while an amazing thing happens. You adjust and the water feels fine. In both of these examples the situation did not change. The exercise is not any different and the water temperature did not change. Your body adjusted because you gave it the time to do what it does naturally – adapt.
The same is true with a fear. If we continually avoid a feared situation, we maintain the fear; we never give our body time to adjust. If we face the fear, at first we will feel anxious, scared – maybe terrified. If we stick with it, an amazing thing begins to happen. The frightening thing or situation begins to feel less scary. If we keep facing that fear over and over again, it loses its power over us.
Am I saying that someone with a fear of spiders should immerse themselves in a pit of the creatures, or that someone with a fear of swimming should jump into a swimming pool? No, I’m not. There is some skill to beginning to chip away at a longstanding fear and what works for any person is as individual as they are. Some people know intuitively what they can tolerate and their instincts will guide them about what to choose. Others will find guidance in a book that addresses the issue, while still others find that the support of a professional is best for them.
Some people will live happily without ever confronting a fear because that fear barely impacts on their lives or happiness. For those whose fears are impacting them in some way that creates dissatisfaction or unhappiness, there is hope to get past them. The point for these people is to begin to challenge the avoidance that keeps them stuck in their fear -to feel empowered rather than powerless. In this way, those pesky “little” fears can be put where they belong – to rest at last.