Fear may join us throughout the year, but no month does it seem more ubiquitous or central than during October. As people prepare for Halloween and plan fall outings, haunted houses, horror movies, and jump scares abound!
Whether conscious or not, fear holds a valuable role in our lives, and given its somewhat pervasive presence (thanks, evolution), we may not always notice when it’s joining us in decision making.
Despite the important role fear plays in ensuring not only our individual survival, but the survival of our species, there are two common assumptions we often make about fear:
Oof. Those are powerful statements. And neither one of them contains the truth!
Fear is a powerful and important indicator. Biologically, it’s what helps us stay alive, supports us in making instant decisions and judgments about safety, and guides us toward choices that intend to extend our lives.
Admittedly, fear isn’t always 100% accurate in assessing the safety of our environment. Our fear sensors can become skewed throughout our life through the influence of societal messages about what indicates safety or danger. And our fear sensors are also impacted by our individual stories and the trauma that we experience. We may also consider here the role of implicit bias and how it influences our fear detection system (and if you think you don’t have implicit bias, maybe check out these Implicit Association Tests).
Even though fear can sometimes mislead us, that doesn’t mean we should completely disregard it, squash it, or try to avoid it. We can work with our fear to better understand ourselves, our world, and our needs. And a therapist can also help you in this process!
Tuning into our fear, consciously noticing its presence, and listening to what it is trying to communicate can help us make thoughtful decisions.
Through listening more intentionally to fear, we can better assess things such as:
Am I feeling fearful because of a real and present danger? Or would it be okay to keep hiking this trail?
Am I feeling fearful because my partner is actually planning to leave me? Or am I feeling insecure in our relationship because I forgot an important anniversary?
Am I feeling fearful because my child truly doesn’t have the skills to stay safe at that party? Or am I struggling with their increased individuality as they grow, and I could feel better if we talk about safety and contact procedures before they go?
The reality is, sometimes when we really pay attention to fear, we will arrive at the conclusion: I don’t actually need to feel fearful about this. There’s no real threat; I’m telling myself a story that isn’t true about this situation.
Or maybe we will notice: I feel fearful and anxious here, but I can make some extra plans or communicate my concerns with this person to address these feelings.
And other times we will decide: Whoa! Hey there, fear. Thanks for helping me notice how uncomfortable this situation makes me. I think I need to choose something else for right now.
And honestly, all of these decisions require immense courage. It is brave to listen to yourself in a world that regularly encourages us not to. And it is important to elicit fear’s true messages, rather than allowing it to rule our life unconsciously.