Exploring Emotion: Fear

By Sherry Atanasio, LMSW

Continuing my series on emotions (February was anger), this month we will be addressing fear. Fear encompasses emotions of uneasiness, apprehensiveness, worry, anxiety, dread, and feeling overwhelmed. With enough intensity, as with any emotion, fear can be difficult to endure (especially with physical symptoms or panic attacks).

Our nervous system responds to fear by pooling our body’s resources in preparation of fighting or fleeing. While the urge is to flee or avoid the aversive situation, let’s slow down and consider what our fear is trying to tell us. Is it a threat to our life? Health? Overall wellbeing of ourselves or someone we care about? It's important to recognize that our fear is meant to serve as a mechanism of self-preservation. However, the concern is if we consistently act on our fears due to assumptions of a situation (e.g. avoiding social outings because of the fear of rejection), then this could inhibit our ability to experience happiness (e.g. although rejection is possible, so is building new friendships, which is pretty hard to do without talking to people).

The Fear Cycle: Fear feeds on itself and is reinforced in a cycle of avoidance. If I had one negative experience with online shopping and decided to stop doing it altogether, I would never know the joys of Amazon Prime! Joking aside, I would ideally confront my fear by continuing to online shop in a safe manner in order to learn that one negative experience does not have to encapsulate my entire experience. Replace online shopping with something you fear in your life, and consider what you are potentially missing out on.

Does the fear fit the facts? Or are we simply responding as though our life is in danger? Take the example of walking home late at night, taking a route through an alley, with no other pedestrians nearby.  In this situation, fear could be justified and we will want to consider how to problem-solve this situation. If we did not have any fear, it would be difficult to maintain our safety.

However, if you look at the situation and you find that your fear is unjustified, or justified but not effective (e.g., running to 4 different CVS’ due to avoidance of Amazon Prime), you can practice opposite action: if our assumptions have colored the event, we might want to consider confronting the feared situation (all the way) or if not possible (due to intense anxiety), at least work on not avoiding it. You can do this by:

  • Using your senses, look around slowly; explore

  • Engage in activities that increase a sense of control and mastery

  • Taking in information from the situation

  • Adopting a confident tone and posture

  • Breathing slowly and deeply and using other grounding techniques

By using opposite action you may be able to confront and overcome fears that are not actually serving you. 

Sherry Atanasio, LMSW is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in exploring and managing emotions, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.