Every year at Halloween, frightful images of witches, ghouls, goblins, skeletons, and ghosts are hung in playful celebration. In a different context, such images might evoke real fear in people because they're not expecting to see them.
This awareness started me thinking a lot about fear and what truly frightens us. As a psychologist, I view fear as a powerful emotion that frequently impacts our daily lives. If we can decrease "unnecessary" fear, we can lead a more fulfilling and happy life. That's the goal of this article.
When there is truly an objective, external threat, then fear is a "gift" that helps us physiologically gear up to handle that threat. Such fear responses are biologically programed to protect us and help us survive (i.e. a fear of certain animals or insects). We're able to run faster, fight harder, see better, etc. when we experience a necessary "fight or flight" response to help us cope with a truly, dangerous threat.
But most things we fear are the things we simply create in our minds. Through an overly active imagination, we all conjure up a multitude of fears in everyday life. For example, look back over the last week (excluding hurricane Sandy) and make a list of all the things you worried about or felt afraid of. I'll bet that many of the things you thought about were things that didn't happen (but you were afraid might happen).
In essence, you put yourself though anguish for no real, legitimate reason. A frequent fight or flight response is triggered by imagined threats, causing enormous stress. With a little self-introspection, we can each examine the type of things that cause us to feel afraid and then categorize those things into a few key patterns. These patterns will help us gain control over the fears we are unnecessarily creating in our own mind.
For instance, here is a list of one man's fears:
- being embarrassed at a social event
- failing to succeed or be promoted at work
- loss of retirement funds during an economic crisis
- dying on an airplane
- death of his wife before his children are adults
What do these types of fears indicate? This individual's fears, like the rest of ours, fall into a few key categories: Fear of others (opinions and assessments or actions) For example, what if they think I'm not good enough....) Fear of the unknown (i.e. what if I go to the expense of moving to a new house and I end up hating the place) Fear of unexpected, negative consequence (i.e. what if I make a wrong choice and it turns out to hurt me or my loved one.)
When we seriously entertain these types of imagined fears, we waste precious life energy. Just because we THINK about various "what if's," doesn't require that we focus on these negative fantasies. In many ways, we truly live based on what we imagine could happen, rather than in response to things that actually do happen.
On the other hand, when we respond to the unexpected while living "in the present moment" we have a better chance of responding with our best efforts. If we are busy living inside our head, we can easily miss responding to the real world. Our imagined fears are like clutter, that prevent us from seeing the true situation. Of course, there are so many life situations and circumstances that we can not predict.
But when we try to be in control of everything, our fear becomes increasingly out-of-control. Fear is like a numbing agent to our thinking brain. Fear causes us to react like a caged animal rather than a rational, logical human being. Once you truly grasp that you create the majority of your own fears, you can choose to stop this bad habit.
Through mindful awareness and a willingness to notice how you are creating your negative fantasies, you can choose to treat such thoughts as "unimportant" brain spam. Like other bad habits, this takes practice, but it can be done.
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