Fears and Phobias – 7 Tips to Overcome them
The NHS defines a phobia “as an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal. Phobias are more pronounced than fears.” On the other hand, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” From these two definitions we can see some parallel and cross over in understanding that both phobias and fears are slightly different, but never-the-less linked with the underlying factor of fear. In my own words, phobia is something that is overwhelming and debilitating deeply affecting our lives in some way, whilst fear is something that can cause us to behave differently to our so-called normal behaviour.
When considering animals in the wild, such as a herd of zebra. Zebras will be grazing quite peacefully when all of a sudden, they intuitively know that there is some kind of threat or danger lurking close by. The natural response is to go into alert mode, which drives the fight or flight reaction. There is no worry, circulating thoughts, deliberation or similar, they simply look around for the threat and take the necessary action to either run (flight) or stay and fight for survival. Once the perceived threat has gone, the herd go back to grazing peacefully, as if nothing had happened a few minutes earlier. The threat of being eaten is an accepted part of being a zebra. Perhaps not a pleasant part if you are the chosen one!
In our human world, we tend to intensify our fears through an unhealthy rumination of negative thoughts that often distort the real picture, leading to poor decision-making, lack of sleep and other bodily symptoms that often cannot be identified medically. This does not mean to say that fear does not exist and that we do not feel it, infact the opposite. It is real, and our mind and body do feel it. With a phobia the degree of fear is intensified to the point where it becomes and is debilitating.
In the face of danger, what stops us from making that decision and just doing it anyway? To leap over the perceived barrier and to take that first step, only to find when we have done it that we are fine and the world around us is fine. There is no right answer to this question, as each one of us is different. We each have our own myriad of reasons that we explain to ourselves and those around us, rationalising the reasons why we are not taking steps to overcoming the fear. With a phobia there is no rationalisation, as the level of fear at whatever is causing the phobia or extreme fear has gone beyond that possibility until such time as the object, situation or feeling has been removed or we have been removed from it.
However, that object, situation or feeling will always be a trigger unless a professional is recruited to help re-wire our brain to think differently about whatever it is that might be causing the phobia or overwhelming fear.
What happens when we live in extreme fear of something, for example the fear of flying, not being able to feed your family, or the fear of going out and leaving your house for work, shopping or other reason?
The fight or flight response becomes elevated causing a vortex of overthinking negative thoughts. Neurological sciences agree that as we think something and re-think something repeatedly, our neurological pathways become channelled and locked and we can, in some ways become what we contemplate.
Our heart rate quickens, driving the release of perspiration in response to the sympathetic nervous system kicking into full alert. A mix of hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream and the heart sends messages to the brain via the Vagus nerve supported by an increase in neurotransmitters. All this before the largest part of the brain, the neocortex has had a chance to identify the nature of the emergency, whether life-threatening, shocking or something in between.
The second phase, for want of a better description that occurs within milliseconds, is the receipt of information through the senses to the neocortex. As a result, an understanding forms about the situation and the fight or flight impetus is either modified or countermanded. With a phobia countermanding very seldom occurs as you can’t “see” and the neocortex becomes incapable of rationally judging the level of danger. It is the same fear that becomes abject fear resulting in control of bodily movements and behaviour.
Once the trigger to the fear and in some cases, the phobia, has been removed, consciousness begins to take control of fight and flight reactions bringing about the slow return to normal through reversal of the extreme arousal process. This might result in expressing excess energy and emotion amassed seconds earlier through nervous laughter, tears, or even shouting, supported by relevant body language. All these responses are the body’s outlet for the release of pent-up emotions, ultimately resetting the amygdala’s warning light and as zebras do, returning to “grazing.”
Unlike animals, what might not be reset is the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), stress system. Actions of this system, especially the release and reabsorption of cortisol take considerably longer to reset, particularly when the threat is perceived to be overwhelming and/or chronic in the case of a phobia. Instead of the feeling of fear being overridden, modified or followed through, it becomes suppressed inside the body, leading to phantom pain and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you believe that disease has an emotional foundation, which I do, fear is one of the cardinal emotions and when suppressed as with other cardinal emotions; guilt, anger and shame, it starts to lay the foundation for dis-ease. If an individual is already suffering from some form of disease or health condition, it will further compound the body’s stress reaction and need to re-balance through mobilisation of the immune system. In other words, draining resources to fight a condition that is emotionally draining vitality from the system.
In the last couple of years with many incidences to be fearful of – Covid-19 and the messages used during lockdowns – “stay home – protect the NHS- save lives”, “stay alert-control the virus-save lives”, now rising energy costs and the fear of how to stay warm and pay the bills, rising petrol costs and the implications that this has on all aspects of modern-day living, continued threats of more dangerous Covid variants etc and the 24/7 news, social media messaging that is ever-present and hammering away at all these topics and many more not mentioned that keeps the fight and flight response switched on. This only serves to keep the HPA axis in heightened response while draining and weakening the immune system which in turn drains vitality and leads to sickness and the possible realisation of the fears that is driving it all.
How do you stop the fear cycle?
Love is the opposite of fear, which is the most important law of the universe. First love of oneself and second love of others. Love is all there is. The King James version of the Bible tells us: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath no torment”. While I would never describe myself as religious and with no dis-respect to those that are, these words make a great deal of sense to me.
Is it now time to come together and focus on building communities through neighbourly support and help? To focus on the abundance that surrounds each one of us, even though some days it might not feel that way, celebrate lives within our communities and care for those that feel vulnerable and fearful and those who are suffering extreme fear or even phobia to go out and about in the world in which we live. To fully embrace the community spirit and to give and share joy to overcome the fear?
Leadership, also plays an important role in building community, trust and openness to inspire and lead others, to build performing teams that exude joy, the sharing of wins and successes and the openness to challenge and discuss when not succeeding in a constructive, positive and decisive manner. In my opinion the foundation to effective and inspirational leadership is above all else to listen to one another with respect, presence and deep interest while nurturing and growing talent.
Put your oxygen mask on first by doing some simple things that each one of us can do for ourselves which when we are all doing them make the pool of support, unconditional love, community spirit and joy ever-grow in size until it embraces all:
1. Make time to be kind to yourself and those around you.
2. Go inward to hear how your mind and body feel.
3. Release pent-up emotions through forgiveness of those that might have hurt you.
4. Share positivity, joy and humour.
5. Give gratitude for the small things that bring joy, fun and appreciation each day.
6. Be present to nature’s abundance and calming influence and as with every river, flow with ease allowing the undulating current to navigate the route smoothly, rather than trying to dam the natural flow or wade upstream against the current.
7. Keep head and heart in balance and don’t be afraid to follow your heart as it is this that connects you to your soul path – your love and passion for life.
“Love makes the world look beautiful. When there is love, there is beauty’. Haemin Sunim
The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion, Michael A. Jawer, Marc S. Micozzi, MD, Ph.D
Feelings Buried Alive Never Die, Karol K. Truman
The Power of the Herd, Linda Kohanov
Written by Rachel Shackleton – Green Key Personal Development