During the Halloween season, many of us are watching scary movies, reading spooky books and enjoying the festive decorations. During this time of year, we put the spotlight on the emotion of fear and being scared. But most of us don’t fear monsters, goblins or vampires. We more often face the fear of failure, fear of rejection and fear of missing out (FOMO) in our daily lives. Fear can prevent you from reaching your true potential and living your best possible life. Some of us may fear specific situations, objects or people. In trying to avoid these triggers, we may face difficulties in our daily lives and in the pursuit of our goals.
Fear is a powerful emotion that is instigated by perceived danger or threat. This emotion causes distinct physiological and behavioural changes. This can then trigger other emotions such as anger, sadness and shame. In responding to this emotion, we may react by avoiding the perceived threat or confronting it. This is called the fight-or-flight response. This response can also trigger involuntary physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweaty and trembling hands, feeling lightheaded and frequent urination. These symptoms can then worsen your feelings of anxiety as you may feel like you are sick or in physical danger.
The Purpose of Fear
Fear is a very useful emotion. It’s the body’s way of telling us that there may be an impending threat to our safety or wellbeing. While fear can be a healthy and safe response in many situations, there are other times when a fear response is less helpful. In these situations, fear can prevent us from having valuable life experiences. For example, the fear of rejection may prevent you from applying for that job you want. Fears associated with social anxiety may prevent you from meeting new people and forming relationships. A fear of confrontation may be a hindrance to standing up for yourself in unjust situations.
A phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder, is a persistent and excessive fear of a specific object or situation. People with phobias will do everything possible to avoid the object of their fear. They will experience significant distress if they cannot avoid the trigger. Agoraphobia, for example, causes people to avoid daily activities such as going to the bank or grocery store. Hydrophobia prevents many people from going to the beach.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Managing Fear
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly known as CBT, is a fairly modern psychotherapeutic modality. It focuses on challenging (and ultimately, changing) unhelpful thought patterns, beliefs and cognitive distortions. CBT encourages you to literally face your fears via exposure treatment. This has shown to be effective in patients across the board, from people with extreme phobias to social anxiety. Exposure therapy encourages patients to “climb the fear ladder” by exposure to the object of fear in gradual increments.
For example, a patient with a fear of spiders may first look at pictures of spiders, then watch a video. When they are ready, they can observe a spider in an enclosed space from far away. Over time, they will get closer and closer. One day, they may get as far as handling a spider with their bare hands. This, of course, takes place over an extended period of time and at a pace that the patient can reasonably tolerate. If your exposures are overwhelming, this can have a counterproductive effect.
Similarly, those with social anxiety may climb the fear ladder by first smiling at a stranger on their daily commute and build their way up to initiating a conversation with someone at work. One day, they may feel confident enough to pursue a romantic interest. Decades of research has shown that if we deliberately and systematically confront our fears, the symptoms of anxiety drastically decrease over time.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
CBT also tackles fear by encouraging you to challenge your thoughts and cognitive distortions. Let’s suppose you are afraid of going outside to exercise because you think that everyone will laugh at you. CBT asks you to stop and challenge that thought. Why would they laugh at you? Wouldn’t they be too caught up in their own busy schedules to even give you a second glance? Do you laugh at people when you see them exercising? If someone does laugh at you, what does that say about them?
After asking yourself these questions over time, you may begin to notice that most of the things that you fear do not ever come to pass. You may also begin to notice that some fears are illogical and not rooted in fact. It also becomes evident that most of the time, the feelings of anxiety are far more intense than the actual experience of facing fear. With this knowledge, you become less fearful over time and more inclined to take action even when you are feeling fearful.
CBT Offers Faster Results
Fear is an emotion experienced by everyone, but is far more common in people with mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective and relatively quick type of therapy that is particularly effective in treating these conditions and in managing fears. Many patients see results within 5-20 weeks and patients are able to use the CBT techniques on themselves for the rest of their lives. In this way, CBT teaches you to be your own therapist.
The clinicians at Flourish Psychology provide a wide array of treatment modalities, including CBT. We would be happy to have a free consult with you to discuss your therapy needs.
Written by Francine Derby