Fear is one formidable foe.
We can think of an antonym for anxiety: calm. For cowardice: courage. But fear? Boldness? Fearlessness? No. There isn’t a direct opposition, no singular word for something you can summon within yourself, and perhaps that’s why conquering fear can be so damn tough.
It’s the All Hallows’ Eve season, and while some revel in seasonal scares – horror movies, spooky decor, ghoulish costumes – for others, fear isn’t seasonal. For some, maybe even yourself, fear can be relentless and debilitating. Isn’t it time you fought back?
I asked three Rhode Island therapists for fighting lessons against fear. Here’s their crash course:
“Fear is an ‘uncomfortable emotion,’ (think anxiety, stress, worry, grief, anger), in which we perceive a danger to our physical or mental well-being,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Eric V. Vaught. “Fear helps us in many ways to stay alive, to be aware. If we didn’t have fear, we would likely be in bed most of the day (or dead) due to not reacting to threats. Morbid, but true!”
“Fear comes from the limbic system, where the amygdala is located,” licensed mental health counselor Michael O’Mara explains. “What happens is our minds recognize patterns in our environment, patterns that can be helpful or harmful. This pattern recognition is not logical. It is just trying to keep us safe. And when we recognize a harmful pattern, the amygdala triggers stress hormones to get us ready for fight, flight, or freeze.”
Michael continues, “Fear becomes a problem when our minds start seeing patterns that don’t fit, that aren’t there. For example, combat veterans can hear firecrackers and their bodies trigger a fear response. This is because they recognize that sound as the pattern for danger. But there is no danger.”
“Much like stress and anxiety, fear is meant to be a short term, acute response to a threatening situation,” explains Vaught. “Fear can be detrimental to one’s physical, mental, and emotional health if it becomes more frequent and long-term. Our body is prone to faster deterioration through chronic and long-term exposure to stress hormones.”
Licensed mental health counselor Martha Brunzos (who specializes in working with hearing-impaired clients) explains how to tell if our fears are becoming problematic: “Ask yourself, how much does the fear I’m experiencing affect my life? Does it interfere with my day-today functioning? Does intense fear take hold of my mind like a magnet for swirling negative thoughts of ‘what ifs’ or ‘I can’t handle this?’ Is it keeping me from achieving a dream I have?”
O’Mara goes on to explain one method of conquering incredibly strong fears, called systematic desensitization. “Systematic desensitization is the process of slowly and systematically exposing people to things that trigger one’s fear response. For example, and this is a simplified version, let’s say someone has a fear of spiders. First, that person would be willing and wanting to overcome their fear. The next step would be to look at pictures of spiders, then moving on to videos, then to fake spiders, and eventually a real, live (but harmless) spider. What happens is they realize that when they are exposed to their fear, nothing bad happens.”
When asked if a person needs to be willing to face their fears before starting treatment, Vaught said, “Absolutely. There is the potential to further increase fear or trauma around a trigger if someone is forced. You want to help a person gain mastery and control over their own emotional responses. Pushing someone into that takes away their agency to solve problems themselves.”
O’Mara explains that conquering fear is much more than the old adage: ‘mind over matter.’ “‘Mind over matter’ implies you can shut off fear, which is not in your conscious power. What you need to do is stop avoiding the things that scare you. Avoidance increases anxiety over time. You need to intentionally challenge yourself and face your fears slowly.”
So how do we conquer fear?
Vaught says, “We need to acknowledge fear and stress. We need to nurture our mind and body through positive self-talk and naming and identifying our feelings and the sources that generate our fears. We need to use deep breathing and mindfulness skills and live presently to help soothe our logical and emotional minds so they can work together as a functional and effective team. With this, we can stop pretending our fears are not there or that they do not matter. Instead, we can use our emotions to their fullest capabilities, just as they were designed.”
Brunzos expands, “I teach my clients to talk back to ‘Amy’ (aka the amygdala). Think of Amy as your helpful but highly reactive, sometimes confused friend. Tell her you’re not in danger at that moment. Secondly, use your breath, you always have it with you! A longer exhale signals to the brain that you’re not actually in danger, and calms your body. You can use paced breathing. To do this, breathe in counting to four and exhale counting to six. Lastly, ground yourself by taking a moment, concentrating, and using your five senses. Focus on the smells and sights around you. The feeling of a warm mug in your hands or the slow ticking of a clock. Finally, think of one emotion you feel. Doing this will help you feel more present and in control of your surroundings.”
Brunzos concludes, “Moderate-to-mild fear is manageable on your own by practicing these techniques. Conquering extreme fear and worry is absolutely possible, and is best addressed with help from an experienced behavioral healthcare provider. Take steps to reduce suffering and increase the joy in your life. Emotional well-being is something we all deserve.”
If you struggle with conquering fear, therapists offering moderate-to-severe fear treatment are available at psychologytoday.com/us and zencare.co. You may also contact the New England Center for Anxiety (401) 236-7096, Butler Hospital (844) 401-0111, or Bradley Hospital (401) 432-1000.