Humans are hard-wired for fear. There is a very complex relay system in the brain involving several small structures and each plays a role in our response to danger. Fight, Flight, Freeze. The problem is that we also respond to situations or “things” that are not necessarily dangerous, and sometimes the line between real danger and perceived danger becomes blurred. We learn to become afraid of something through a conditioned learned response, and our natural tendency once we have been hurt (physical or emotional) is to avoid. However, avoidance may be the single most dangerous thing we do in the long run because it serves to perpetuate and sustain our anxiety about the feared person, object, situation, or activity. How does this happen exactly and how can we go about overcoming fear?

When something scary or extremely anxiety-provoking happens (let’s call that the “lion”) we have a natural hard-wired response to that lion. The lion is called an unconditioned stimulus, and our fight-flight-freeze response is called an unconditioned response. All of that just naturally happens and it does so in all animals. The problem is that we also store extra information in the brain, for example, not only is the lion now scary, but things that we associate with the lion are also scary – the color of its fur, the sound it makes, the place it lives, etc. All of these extraneous details now have the potential of becoming what we call conditioned stimuli. We may hear a sound that reminds us of that lion, and it will now lead to a conditioned response (similar to the hard-wired fight-flight-freeze response).

A bear that needs to overcome his fear of a lion

Anxious (worried) thoughts and avoidance behaviors that ensue become positively reinforcing to one another. This scenario becomes a vicious cycle. As your anxiety increases, you make attempts to reduce it. Watch out for more subtle forms of avoidance such as using “safety behaviors, objects, people, or signals” or “superstitious objects.” This includes your fur babies and alcohol. Perhaps you are going out, but now you always take a friend or spouse. Perhaps you didn’t sleep too well previously, but now your sleep is totally out of control, and you’re turning on a nightlight, locking your doors, and checking windows numerous times. The unfortunate consequence of all of these behaviors is that they reinforce your believed inability to cope with the anxiety. As time goes on, you lose confidence in your coping skills. This, in and of itself, reinforces beliefs that all these associated cues are actually dangerous.

Why does that matter? Well, because in a truly dangerous, life-threatening situation, your brain can only focus on a limited number of “things.” And we want to make sure that our brain can focus on the actual “lion” if the time comes, and is not distracted by the nearby bushes, trees, birds, grass, sky. Get my drift? When we lose this inability to discriminate between what is actually dangerous, we begin to perceive everything as dangerous. Not only are we at increased risk in terms of our inherent, hard-wired ability to react, but we will likely also be feeling totally overwhelmed all the time!

Steps For Overcoming Fear

Maybe you don’t feel ready to do the scariest activities. So start with baby steps, the slightly less anxiety-provoking situations. Write down a list of all the things you think you may be avoiding right now, and then rank each one on a scale of 1-10. The “1” is a relatively low or minimal level of anxiety and thus avoidance. The “10” is the highest level of anxiety you can imagine (maybe panic attack zone), and thus you avoid it the most. Once you have established this FEAR HIERARCHY, then start with the activities listed at about a 3 or 4. The reason for this is that these activities will produce just enough anxiety for you to challenge. The goal of approaching feared activities in this way (called “Exposure”) is that we allow ourselves to have corrective learning experiences that help us in overcoming fear. We allow our brain to now understand that all these normal activities of daily living, or everyday cues, are not likely going to harm us. Exposure helps us break the vicious cycle of anxiety. Remember, conditioned learning got us in the hole. So, corrective learning will get us out of the hole.

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

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