How To Name And Tame Your Fears
Tame your fear by giving it a name
The only thing you have to fear is fear itself
Fear is hardwired into our ancient brain – our amygdala – and we react to it at a very primitive level. The problem is that most of the reactions we have are actually over-reactions: there is no actual fight or flight required when we’re on a ride at Universal Studios, or watching a horror movie, or being cut off in traffic. We’re just allowing our fear button to be pushed.
The scientific history of fear
The study of the science of fear is relatively new, perhaps beginning when Charles Darwin suggested that fear had a biological basis. This was based on his study of a wide variety of animals, where he noted the similarity in how all animals showed fear. Many scientists and psychologists studied emotional reactions, but the first big breakthroughs came in the field of associated learning.
Fear conditioning is a form of associative learning introduced by Ivan Pavlov – the guy who brought us the famous bell-ringing, salivating dog experiments in the 1920′s. Another experiment conducted around the same time by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner involved subjecting an 11 month old boy to loud noise, then associating it with the site of a white rat. After a number of repetitions of white rat accompanied by noise, the child would then cry when he saw the white rat, even if there was no noise. These kinds of experiments gave us deep insight into our animal natures, showed us that early human experiments were helpful for learning experiments but terrible for children, and influenced several generation of horror movie soundtrack composers. The “Jaws” theme comes to mind.
Enter Emotional Intelligence
There have been many contributions to the understanding of associative learning, but perhaps the most influential is “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, published in 1998. In the book, Goleman describes five main constructs of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, social skill, empathy, and motivation. Mastering these skills is a subject unto itself. Suffice it to say here that they are all skills that can be used to override your amygdala’s fight-or-flight response by conditioning your brain to label and regulate emotions using your right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. I know, it sounds like a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo, but emotional conditioning does work. After all, it’s just another form of learning. The difference here is that overriding your primitive brain requires a different approach. But we were talking about fear. Let’s get specific.
Traditional ways of dealing with fear
Originally, talk therapy was the answer. If you talked about your fears with someone you trusted, you could get to the root cause of your fears and they could no longer have power over you. It took a long time, and was not very effective, and very expensive. “That will be $125 per hour. Sorry, your time is up. See you next week!”
More recently, Systematic Desensitization has been the reigning paradigm. The broad umbrella of Systematic Desensitization involves exposing the fearful person to small increments of fear-based situations, increasing over time, and through that exposure desensitizing them to the fear-provoking situation. This approach has proven much more effective than talk therapy.
Some of the different variations of Systematic Desensitization include imagining the scary thing while doing relaxation techniques; being actually exposed to the thing you are afraid of in tiny amounts over time;
and single-session exposure treatments, which uses progressive desensitization across one session. Exposure based treatments such as these have been proven to be highly effective for a wide range of fears.
A new approach to conquering fears
New approaches blend multiple different successful approaches. Insight Oriented psychotherapies are talk therapies where the patient is walked through the fear. It is now well understood that specific phobias are associated with an attentional bias to preferentially allocate attention. Need the translation?
The goal of Insight Oriented therapy is to interactively talk with the patient and guide them to an understanding that they are making a choice to give their attention to a particular fear. Essentially, Insight Oriented therapy is a special hybrid of Talk Therapy and Exposure Therapy. However, it’s not the old style of talk therapy where the client talks and the therapist listens.
According to Michelle Craske, Director of the Anxiety Disorders Behavioral Research Program at UCLA, in a paper published in Psychological Science, “This is unique because it differs from typical procedures in which the goal is to have people think differently about the experience — to change their emotional experience or change the way they think about it so that it doesn’t make them anxious. Here, there was no attempt to change their experience, just to state what they were experiencing.” If you are interested in more information regarding this new approach, Dr. Craske has written a therapists guide about mastering phobias and anxieties.
On an interesting side note, I’ve been meditating since I was in college. One technique I’ve used is Mindfulness Meditation, where you sit comfortably, clear your mind, and let emotions or thoughts arise that disturb the calmness. When they arise, you very calmly watch them float by, label them, and let them go. So it seems to me that this new research on labeling your emotions and fears is very similar to the Mindfulness meditative approach.
The message of this article is that there are new techniques and approaches to name and tame your fears. If fears and anxieties are overwhelming and disruptive to your general life, please seek therapy! You can ask your therapist if they are familiar with Insight Oriented psychotherapy.
When you find yourself in an anxious or fearful situation, try using the “naming your fears” approach by talking to the situation or object, labeling your emotions and putting your feelings into words. Keep in mind that you need to say these words out loud, so make sure you’re in a trusting environment. For example, if you’re scared of spiders, and there’s one on the wall in front of you, then talk to the spider: “You’re really ugly. You’re really hairy. You’re really gross. You’re disgusting. I don’t want to be in the same room with you.” This can help to manage the intensity of the situation.
This can work in parenting situations as well. For example, if you have a child who is anxious about homework, you might try asking them to label their fears and talk specifically about what they’re anxious about, while you guide them through the process of looking at their fears and talking about how their thoughts and feelings about the fears might possibly be bigger than the situation actually calls for. “I have too much homework. I’m overwhelmed. I never do it good enough. I never get it done. I hate this. I feel bad about myself.” Listen, encourage them, and try to inject reality in the situation. “Math still has to get done, but you’re not a bad person for not getting it done.”
- Every day, as often as necessary.
- Less intense fearful situations
- Ability to help those that you love deal with their fears
- Less stress
- More control of your emotional reactions
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