Have you ever felt paralyzed by fear? I’m talking about the kind of feeling where your thoughts race, you don’t know what to do next, and you are concerned about the future.
If you feel that fear has become unmanageable, know that you are not alone. Every human being experiences times of panic, stress, uncertainty, and unhelpful thoughts from time to time. In fact, why wouldn’t we?
From a very young age, we learn that life can be scary. We might start by being afraid of the monsters under the bed, the dark, or the pain that comes when we fall down and scrape a knee or touch a hot stove.
The question is: “How can we discern good fear from unhealthy fear?”
If we consider the fear of touching a hot stove, this is actually “good” fear. It comes from the knowledge that we need to be careful around things which might hurt us. When we’re young and scrape a knee during a game of tag, we learn valuable lessons such as not going faster than our feet, our level of balance, or being cautious when playing on a slippery surface. Fear of getting physically hurt makes sense; we learn from our environment ways to stay safe.
If we consider childhood fears as metaphors for the fears we experience in adult life -- where we allow worry imaginary monsters of life (Insert the following possibilities: work, connection, acceptance, and achievement) take up space in an otherwise safe environment -- we have crossed into unhealthy territory.
THERAPISTS ARE HUMAN TOO
Not too long ago, I was faced with a situation in my life that rattled my nerves. I had been working closely with a colleague and was in communication with her nearly every day. One day, I reached out and did not get a response back. One day passed. Before I knew it, it had been a week since I last heard from her. My irrational thoughts started to take over started creeping in. My mind had me all but convinced that my colleague must be seriously injured or even dead.
So, even though I am a therapist, I am not immune to the issues that come from simply being human. I’d like to add that I am a Christian, and this can add another layer to things. If you are a Christian believer like me, when you feel fear, you might be concerned that that it means you aren’t pleasing God or trusting in Him enough. However, that in itself is just more fear.
I became aware of the irrational worries and considered other possibilities. Maybe she was just busy or lost her phone and didn’t even know I called. It turned out that she was alive and well, but for a short period of time, fear had me lost in my thoughts.
So, if you find yourself with overactive fears, the following might be helpful.
Just like a night light can make a scary bedroom seem safer to a young child, the following strategies can help to shine some light on tools you can use to help calm yourself when fear feels overwhelming or paralyzing.
Try Asking Yourself:
1) What do I know to be true? If I had asked myself this question, I would have been able to rationally say that my colleague is young, in good health, and that I would have heard from someone else if an accident had occurred. This might have helped me realize that there was likely another reason that I hadn’t heard back yet. By doing this, I was testing the reality of my thoughts and seeing if they were true or baseless.
2) What do I have control over right now? In my personal example, I did not have control over my friend’s health or safety. I did have the ability to call her a second time or even drive to her office to check up on her. I did have the choice on what to do with my actions and how to respond to the situation. Worrying was not going to prevent anything bad from happening or undo something bad if it had already happened. When my mind was imagining catastrophe, I could have rerouted that energy into working on the project, going for a walk, and ultimately using strategies to "let go". I could still feel more in control of the uncontrollable wait by choosing a rational response over the imaginary fears.
3) What is the worst that could happen? What could I do if it happened? It's unlikely that our worst fears come to fruition. However, one way to trick your thinking into a more rational and helpful thought process is to imagine the worst outcome and the steps you would take if your worst fear were to materialize. This may sound counter-intuitive, and it is. However, as a thought exercise, it can help you realize that you would still be able to find a way to function even when things don’t go well. This understanding that you possess strengths, resiliency, and support can aid you in managing the fears.
4) What Does God Say About Fear? As a Christian, I can turn to scriptures to learn how to respond when things are overwhelming. A great verse of comfort is found in Deuteronomy 31:8 which says of God that “He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” This is a promise that God is on our side and that there is nothing that He will not be able to see us through.
Fear serves us well when we use it to keep us from unwise actions and situations. When it is in overdrive, it renders us incapable of rational thought. By considering the facts of the situation, what we have control over, and identifying our tools in possible disaster, we can transform our self from helpless to thriving. We can take back the power from irrational and unhealthy fear.
How are you letting your fear hold you back from experiencing your best life?