It’s said that fear isn’t the result of something frightening, but of something that’s unknown. Why is walking down the dark creepy stairs scary? It’s because there’s no way of knowing if there’s a monster hiding underneath that is going to grab your ankles. Why is trying something new scary? It’s because we don’t know what to expect.
Unfortunately, life is full of unknowns and we’re terrific at coming up with worst-case scenarios. We can create fear out of literally every situation if we let ourselves. Thankfully, we also have a secret weapon to help counteract those fears – our intuition and instincts. Over the hundreds of thousands of years that people have been on the planet, we’ve developed senses that are excellent at letting us know if we are in danger. For most people, these instincts kick in when there is an undefined problem or risk.
When it comes down to it, our brains have this massive catalog of what’s considered normal. Anything that falls outside of that box is flagged as a risk. If our brains think that there’s something wrong, it probably has a good reason to think that.
Combatting the Fear Monster
Unfortunately, brains can be trained to also be fearful of things that aren’t necessarily a problem. Like those who have a fear of spiders or clowns. Irrational fears tend to come from a negative childhood experience that taught our brains that something generally harmless is in fact super dangerous.
If you find yourself more fearful than you think healthy, try this:
- Take 5 minutes and write down everything you are afraid of. No one is going to read this but you, so don’t hold back.
- When you’re done, go through your list and put a check next to any item that has a high probability of happening.
- Put an X next to any item that probably won’t happen.
- For every checkmark, give yourself permission to experience fear or worry, then choose one and decide if there’s anything you can do about it. If there is, set plans in motion to address it.
- For every X, thank your brain for trying to keep you safe. Then, take a deep breath and let go of that fear. It might help to say something that shines a light on how ridiculous the fear is. “No, the clown is not going to eat me.”
- The more you do this exercise, the shorter and shorter the fear list will get.
The challenge of having a fearful child
Anxiety runs in my family and has shown up in my kiddos as well. This means we take a lot of time discussing if fears are realistic or not. I’m told having hoards of unrealistic fears, especially in children, is a sign of a higher intellect. So, yay? The best thing I can do as a parent is to work to be empathetic first and then compassionate.
It looks a bit like this:
My youngest comes to me expressing one of his usual fears, which tend to rotate around his health. (Thanks COVID, sigh.) “Mom, what is this tiny spot on my leg? I think it’s cancer, or maybe a poisonous spider or something.” My first instinct is to try to wipe it off, as the possibility of it being Nutella isn’t zero. But, I hold myself back and say something that mirrors the worry I see in him. “Wow, you have a spot there and you don’t know what it is and it’s worrying you, right?” He’ll usually explain what he thinks it is, which helps him think through the problem, and then I’ll perform my examination – the more doctor-y and scientific the better. When we’re done, he usually feels better, and if he doesn’t, I offer to put the universal problem-solver on it – a bandaid.
Do I manage this every time? Nope. Sometimes I’m not patient enough for the whole exchange. But, I try my best because, in the long run, these kinds of conversations will help him sort through the fear on his own.
Discussion Question: What scares you the most?