Skill #1: Challenge Your Thoughts
Fear. We all have it.
I don’t know about you, but my fears can take on a life of their own. How to manage those messy thoughts is a marvelous skill. Without practicing it, my highly imaginative mind can fill in any blank with some worst-case-scenario and hit the accelerator! Once that happens, I’m running down roads from every bad horror movie or worst case scenario in my memory bank.`
We need to get fear out of the driver’s seat of our lives.
The state of fear or anxiety is a natural emotion intended to warn us of danger and protect our safety. It is probably a good thing if I am fearful walking alone in a parking garage at night. I will be more vigilant and aware of potential danger. Anyone would tell me to play it safe when walking alone at night. When our fears run away with us and become excessive, we find ourselves in trouble. We find ourselves living under a constant state of internal alarm.
The subsequent effect of the onslaught of stress hormones clouds our thinking capacity and negatively impacts our immune system and health. We need to get fear out of the driver’s seat of our lives.
What exactly is fear?
Fear is the mind’s interpretation of one’s anxiety. A fear is a thought that usually begins “I’m afraid (that/of/because) _______.” The relationship between fear and anxiety is bidirectional: we generate anxiety by a thought (“I’m afraid of ____”) and a feeling of anxiety can generate a fear (I’m anxious at night and I tell myself there something to fear in the dark).
Fear is the mind’s interpretation of one’s anxieties.
Anxiety is part physiological and part psychological. Some of us are simply hardwired for it—I know I am. Anxiety tends to run in my family and I can be quickly and easily aroused: my heart rate shoots up, as does my blood pressure, my hands shake, knees feel weak, and my voice wavers. My mind races. It is not pleasant. We tend to look outside ourselves for the reason. That is a fear.
Try this Skill
One skill to manage this messy process is to Challenge Your Thoughts with facts and rational thinking. If I fear the dark when home alone, I can rationally challenge that fear with facts like, “There is no one in the house with me. The alarm is set. I am safe. I’ve had this feeling before but it is not based in reality. There is nothing to fear in the dark.” Imagine for a moment making these rational statements to yourself. How do you feel?
Compare that to how you feel when you allow fear and irrational thinking to run away with you. Maybe you do the “What if…” game: “What if someone is hiding in the closet? What if someone crawls in my window while I am asleep? What if there is a monster under my bed?” How do you feel now? At the very least, those thoughts immediately contribute to your sense of unease and worst case, can set off a complete panic. Your internal dialogue affects your fear.
Is there a history to your fear?
Assess the level of danger around you if you are naturally tense or anxious. Ask questions like: Am I safe? Does this situation remind me of something in my past that set off an alarm? Am I otherwise vulnerable—hungry, not rested, stressed, dehydrated (which physiologically mimics panic symptoms), or fighting a real threat in another part of my life (hostile work environment, angry spouse, sick loved one, dangerous neighborhood)? If so, those are important. A threat in another area of one’s life can contribute to anxiety and fear leaking out into seemingly unrelated daily situations. If you’ve lost perspective on whether or not something is a real threat, it is helpful to get some feedback from an objective third party like a trusted friend or a therapist.
So how do you challenge thoughts?
I like to recommend a 3-column strategy. In the first column, list the fear. In the second column, write out as many facts as you can think of to rationally challenge that fear.
The third column is for your conclusions and plan: “This fear of the dark at home is from childhood and most kids fear a monster under their bed. I am a competent adult and I am safe. I think I’ll play some music that I find relaxing and snuggle on the couch with the dog (or cat) for a bit. Now YOU are in the driver’s seat—not your fears!
Rhea Ann Merck, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, passionate about making life better every day…