We all experience the feeling of fear from time to time. While there are various benefits to experiencing fear, there are also even more limitations. Fear can keep us away from dangerous situations, keeping us safe within our comfort zones. Oppositely, fear can also keep us from experiencing new things and prevent us from doing something that we may realize could benefit us in the long run. When it comes to mental health, fear plays a significant factor in people hesitating to receive treatment or stay in treatment, limiting people to work to create a better life for themselves. Only by challenging your fears will you be able to achieve greatness.
What is Fear?
Fear is a natural and common human emotion. The feeling of fear tends to surface within us when we experience the threat of harm. It is easy to understand feelings of fear when we are in the presence of threatening, physical or emotional stimuli. But what about when the stimuli become mental, anticipated, or perceived? Many mental health conditions involve the presence of delusions and hallucinations, which involve elements of sometimes threatening psychological stimuli. When fear becomes psychological in any case, it becomes increasingly harder to manage and challenge.
When a person experiences fear, they are likely to experience a combination of one or all of the following symptoms:
- Negative patterns of thought. For example, consider a person with social anxiety. This person is likely to fear social situations because they are thinking that everyone around them will judge them, laugh at them, or that something bad will happen to them.
- Physical symptoms. For example, fear activates the fight-or-flight response in the body. This response includes increased heart rate, breathing, perspiration, and blood pressure.
- Alterations in behavior. For example, when we fear certain stimuli, we may want to avoid certain functions or environments. In severe cases, some individuals might fear leaving their homes for the sake of their own safety.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fears
Fear is an emotion that is quite literally programmed into our nervous system. As there is no way around fear, the only solution to fear is to face it head-on. Before you can persevere beyond your fears, you must recognize what fears need to be challenged.
Some fears are healthy. We learn at a very young age that fire is hot, and if you touch fire you will get burned. The fear of getting burned is a normal and healthy fear. The feeling of fear is natural and is there to help keep us safe.
On the other hand, all of us have some unhealthy fears. These fears make us more cautious and anxious than we need to be, and much more than necessary. For example, people who struggle with mental illness often fear meeting new people. Although the experience is intimidating, the fear itself is limiting. Meeting new people should not pose any threat to your safety or well-being. This fear is unhealthy because it limits not only your potential but causes you to put your guard up around things you may otherwise enjoy.
How to Challenge Your Unhealthy Fears
Consider the term “unhealthy” as a way of explaining any fear that limits your ability to grow, whether that be growing your weaknesses or your strengths. Once you can identify your fears, try your best to give them a label and a root cause. If you fear dating, try to uncover the root cause of your hesitation to date again. Maybe you fear dating because the people you have dated in the past had all let you down. Your hesitation to date is valid, but your ability to date should not be limited by fear. Address the root causes for your concerns and be patient with yourself as you challenge your fears.
If your fear developed as a trauma response, understand that the experience of fear after an overwhelming or tragic event is normal and common. There is a range of therapies that work to treat unwanted and/or negative thought patterns. Many treatments offer valuable coping skills that help you to deal with the trauma first and then follow up with challenging unhealthy fears.
Mental habits to challenge and defeat fear include:
- Understanding that you alone do not have all of the answers. Do not try to figure everything out by yourself. A mental health professional can and will be able to provide you with the guidance you need to grow beyond your fears.
- Validating your reason for having a specific fear. It is not helpful to consider a fear that you have stupid or unnecessary, even when it may seem so. Like we mentioned earlier, fear keeps us safe. Acknowledge and validate where your fear is coming from so you can recognize it for helping you be safe in your life today.
- Letting go of control. When our lives are ruled by fear, our mind wants control over everything we do. Our mind convinces us that it will keep us safe. Recognize that it is okay to let some things be out of your own control, and will help you to grow in the long run.
- Practicing mindfulness. Use key principles such as acceptance, non-judgment, and person-centeredness in everything you do. Focus on the positives and watch your fears shrink in size and intensity.
- Exposing yourself to what you fear. Do this gradually and repeatedly over an extended period of time. Exposure processes help you to ride out anxiety and fear until it passes away entirely. Exposure therapy is a great example of this.
Fear is a natural response to threatening stimuli, whether or not the stimuli is real or perceived. Fear serves many purposes, but mainly serves to keep us safe in situations where we feel vulnerable. Each of us has healthy and unhealthy fears. The healthy ones keep us safe from realistic threat, while the unhealthy ones limit us from meeting our greatest potential. To challenge your unhealthy fears, you must be able to label and identify them. Try to recognize the root cause of your fear in order to add context to it and to validate it. Then, work to challenge unwanted and negative thought patterns through repeated exposure of your said fear. SoCal Mental Health understands that fear is one of the most significant limitations in meeting your greatest potential. We will work with you to challenge and grow beyond your crippling and distressing fears. For more information, call us at (714) 328-4760.