Linda, 25 years of age, is unable to enter lifts without feeling panic. Robert, 57 years old, worries almost constantly about his approaching retirement. Anne, 15 years of age, is awaiting her boy-friend for a date with her knees shaking and her stomach upset. At all ages and at all stages of life, fear presents as problem to almost everyone. Â“We are largely subject to our fears,Â” wrote British author Horace Walpole many years ago. Â“To one, fear of the dark; to another, of physical pain; to a third, of oneÂ’s appearance in public; to a fourth, of poverty; to a fifth, of loneliness for all of us our particular fear is waiting to prey on us.Â”
Linda, 25 years of age, is unable to enter lifts without feeling panic. Robert, 57 years old, worries almost constantly about his approaching retirement. Anne, 15 years of age, is awaiting her boy-friend for a date with her knees shaking and her stomach upset.
At all ages and at all stages of life, fear presents as problem to almost everyone. “We are largely subject to our fears,” wrote British author Horace Walpole many years ago. “To one, fear of the dark; to another, of physical pain; to a third, of one’s appearance in public; to a fourth, of poverty; to a fifth, of loneliness for all of us our particular fear is waiting to prey on us.”
Fear as Psychological Problem
Fear is often a most useful emotion. When you become frightened, many physical changes occur within your body. Your heart beats faster, your sense of response sharpens and your pupils become bigger to catch more light and large quantities of energy-producing adrenaline flow into your blood. With all these, when you are confronted with a threatening accident, your body is prepared for an emergency situation. Similarly, when the danger is psychological rather than physical, fear can force you to take self-protective measures. It is only when fear is out of normal proportion compared to the real danger that it becomes a problem.
Some people are simply more sensitive to fear than others. A visit to the maternity ward of any large hospital will demonstrate that, from the moment of their birth, a few fortunate babies respond calmly to sudden fear producing situations such as a loudly slammed door. Yet a baby in the next cradle may cry out with obvious fright. From birth, he is quicker to learn fearful reactions because he has inherited a tendency to be more sensitive.
Further, psychologists know that our early experiences and relationships with our environment shape and determine our later fears. A young man named Bill, for example, grew up with a father who regarded each difficulty as a temporary challenge to be tackled with imagination and courage. Using his father as a model, Bill came to welcome adventure and to trust in his own ability to solve problems.
Jack’s father, on the other hand, spent most of his time protecting himself and his family. Afraid to face the risk of a new job, he remained unhappily in one position. He avoided vacation in distant places because “the car might break down”. He avoided “dangerous sports” because “he might break his legs or arms.” Growing up in such a home, Jack naturally learned to become fearful and tense.
Perhaps the most destructive form of fear is the chronic complaint of anxiety, which disturbs the lives of so many people. Anxiety is particularly difficult to bear because there is no specific factor on which it is based.
Fortunately, even people who are frequently disturbed by excessive fears and anxieties can take steps to reduce most of them to proportional size. Here are some suggestions:
Respect your body
Every person suffering from excessive fear should have a thorough physical examination. You can not feel free from fear if you are physically unhealthy. A woman complaining of continuous fear consulted her doctor, who found that her body was showing the beginnings of hypoglycemia, a condition in which the blood lacks sugar. If however medical examination shows no physical cause for your fear, stop blaming your body and investigate your conflicts, and your mental attitude towards the conflicts.
Share your feelings
Fears develop secretly and tend to be regarded as “personal matters.” In 1968, Professor Irving Janis, a Psychologist at Yale University, studied a number of patients who were going to be operated on. Some of them expressed their worries openly and freely before the operation took place; others kept their anxieties to themselves as if they wanted to demonstrate their courage. Strangely, after the operation, the patients in the first group experienced fewer complications and their bodies adjusted more easily to the healing process than the patients in the second group, who felt that they had to bear their fears by themselves.
The best people for you to talk to about a fear are those directly involved in your worries. If you can freely express your feelings to them without blaming them for your anxiety, you have taken an important step. If you cannot, try turning to a trusted friend or someone else whom you can describe your personal feelings.
Accept brief periods of fear
Excessive worries about fear will only make the problem worse. Fearful anxiety is the natural companion to most important changes in our lives. Recently, a patient who had moved three times in the past year came to a psychiatrist. The doctor soon realized that the patient was reacting to the natural anxieties that were caused by the intensive changes that had occurred in her life in a relatively short period. When she began to accept her fears as natural, she gained control of herself again.
Learn to live in the present
If you honestly examine your worst fears, you’ll find most of them to be of what is called the “what would happen if” variety. Many people develop the habit of imagining things that simply aren’t real. They suffer from what is called the “suppose” disease : suppose I fail a test, suppose he rejects my request, suppose I make a poor impression, suppose the doctor finds that I am suffering from …, and so on.
Listen to what you tell yourself
People often tend to make their fears worse by seeing situations as hopeless or disastrous. What you tell yourself about a situation is usually the way you will begin to react to that situation. If, for example, your car breaks down, the healthy reactions is: “Well, it’s indeed a trouble, but by no means a tragedy.” If, however, you choose to tell yourself such thing as, “It always happens to me, I’m a born loser,” you are likely to lead yourself into self-pity chronic anxiety.
Stop being a perfectionist
If you truly want to do a good job, you will usually succeed. If you want to do a perfect job, however, and habitually demand too much from yourself, you may be defeated before you start.
A patient complained to her doctor about being unable to sleep well. After examining her, the physician said that she was suffering from nervous tension then he learned that she was worried over a plan to give a dinner party for some of her husband’s business connections. As he listened to her, the doctor then came to the conclusion that her real fear did not arise from her plan to give a simple dinner party; actually she wanted to give a dinner party that was much better and more impressive than those that she had attended that year. By wanting everything to be perfect, she let herself fall victim to a tension that was quite unnecessary.
Learn to relax
A person cannot be relaxed and frightened at the same time but most fearful people doubt that they can ever relax. When a psychiatrist suggested to his patient that he needed a lot of relaxation, the latter replied, “If I could relax, I wouldn’t come here.” To a certain extent, the patient might be right but relaxation is a skill which can be learned. For example, when you are fearful or feeling tense, sit down in a comfortable chair, draw in your breath slowly, then gradually release it. By gaining control of your breathing, you can often lessen the symptoms of fear.
For those who are interested in learning about relaxation, there are now many clubs that offer courses in yoga and in meditation.
Look for a meaning in your life
Without a sense of meaning, people tend to become cynical and then frightened. Religious faith can be a fortress for many in times of anxiety. So is serving the needs of others.
A woman was almost constantly disturbed by anxieties until she discovered that her town needed a public library. Soon she was so busy working for the goal of getting a library built that she had little time to let herself feel disturbed by her own discomforts. An elderly man, feeling himself useless and lonely after he retired and all his children had got married and moved away to build their own homes, learned that the Red Cross hospital in his city needed some elderly volunteers to comfort and keep company with elderly patients. In serving the needs of these patients, he found a meaning for his life.Perhaps that is the wisdom of all. By giving of yourself, you often lose your fears.