Being scared is not always a bad thing
Monday, October 25, 2004
By LESLIE GARCIA, The Dallas Morning News
It wakes us up at night and won't let us go back to sleep. It leaps on us during stomach-flipping amusement park rides and scary movies, on ice-slick roads, in haunted houses. It gives us goose bumps, makes our hair stand on end, causes our heart to beat faster than is comfortable.
And though this may be hard to believe, being scared doesn't mean you're a wimp. It means you're alive. Fear, a big chapter in the handbook of being human, has saved many a life. It has prevented people from making mistakes, rushed others to the doctor to check out scary symptoms.
"It's important to keep in mind that sometimes we have fears that are reasonable and rational," says Dr. Daniel Pearson III, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. "Our bodies are telling us to do something -either run away or stay and fight."
If our ancestors hadn't been afraid of saber-toothed tigers, for instance, and hadn't high-tailed it out of their way; well, we'd probably be the extinct species. Many of today's fears, in fact, began with our ancestors, says David G. Myers, a social psychologist at Hope College in Michigan. "Yesterday's risks prepare us to fear snakes, lizards and spiders. ... Our biological past predisposes us to fear confinement and heights, and therefore flying," says Dr. Myers, author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils (Yale University Press, 2002).
Though many of us have told ourselves (as we board a plane with white knuckles) that flying is safer than driving, we still tend to zero in on plane crashes, fears many of us amplified after 9-11. And though attacks of great white sharks are rare, we became paranoid about going into the ocean after seeing Jaws.
"Vivid, memorable images dominate our fears," Dr. Myers says. "A thousand massively publicized anthrax victims would rivet our attention more than ... 30,000-plus annual gun deaths. Dramatic outcomes capture our attention; probabilities we hardly grasp. The result: We overvalue lottery tickets, overestimate flight risk and underestimate the dangers of driving."
Fear has a gradient, says Dr. Robin Jarrett, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "A certain amount can help us perform better. If you're driving, you don't want to go to sleep," she says. "Anxiety can keep you awake ... if it's not too much. But if it gets to be excessive, it interferes with your ability to drive."
Similarly, she says, fear can propel people who are afraid to take tests to study. "But if the fear of failing gets too high, it can interfere with the ability to express what they know," says Dr. Jarrett, who also holds the Elizabeth H. Penn professorship of clinical psychology at UT Southwestern.
If it's any consolation, experts say most of us are afraid of something.
"Although common wisdom says fear makes our lives narrow, habitual and small, this is not the case," says psychotherapist Harriet Lerner, author of Fear and Other Uninvited Guests (HarperCollins, 2004). "Fear is just an emotion that careens through your body and makes you miserable."
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU'RE AFRAID?
Your body kicks into the "fight or flight" mode, says Dr. Daniel Pearson III of Methodist Dallas Medical Center. The adrenal gland releases the hormone adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, he says. "It affects the whole body. Your heart rate goes up, you're sweating, and your pupils change. You're tremulous, and you may develop an overactive gut. Remember in high school during exams? Everybody had to go to the bathroom before a test."
The reason this happens harkens back to our ancestors: "If you were going to suddenly have to run or fight for your life, you'd want as much blood as possible going to your muscles because you'll be putting out a great deal of effort and energy," he says. "You're going to be doing something very active, either running or fighting for your life."
DO YOU NEED PROFESSIONAL HELP TO COPE WITH A PROBLEM?
Fear often saved our ancestors' lives, and it's been known to save ours. But sometimes fear gets the better of us. "If you're in a circumstance where you're afraid and there's nothing to be afraid of, it's no longer an adaptive reaction," says Dr. Robin Jarrett of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
If your fear meets several of these criteria, you may want to seek professional help. Start with your primary care physician, who can refer you to someone who specializes in treating fears and anxieties. These criteria are taken from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
- Your fear is persistent, excessive or unreasonable. It's brought on by the presence or anticipation of an object or situation, such as flying, animals, getting a shot, blood or heights.
- Being exposed to that object or situation, encountering what you're afraid of, brings about an immediate anxiety response. If you're an adult, you might have a panic attack. Children sometimes cry, have tantrums or become clingy.
- You either avoid the situation or object, or endure it with intense anxiety or distress.
- The avoidance or anxiety interferes with your normal routine.
- In individuals under 18, it has lasted at least six months.
- Your fear isn't part of another psychiatric disorder; there's no other reason for it.
HOW TO CONFRONT THOSE FEARS
Phobias usually fall into one of four groups, says Dr. Robin Jarrett:
- Animal and environment (dogs, for instance, or large bodies of water)
- Injection or injury (getting a shot or being in a wreck)
- Situational (flying or driving on a highway)
Although these situations and objects are typically safe, "we can come up with scenarios where there's reason to be afraid," says Dr. Jarrett, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.If you do have such a fear, the key is to "avoid avoidance," says author and psychotherapist Harriet Lerner.
"We practice avoidance; avoiding planes, driving, trying something new, speaking up, bringing more of our authentic self into a relationship," says Dr. Lerner, whose latest book is Fear and Other Uninvited Guests (HarperCollins Publishers, $23.95). "Avoidance makes you less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid," she says. "In fact, avoidance makes your fear grow. You never get the opportunity to know you can act in the face of fear."
So how to do it? Plunge right in, says Dr. Jarrett, who also holds the Elizabeth H. Penn professorship in clinical psychology at UT-Southwestern. She tells a story of a woman who was afraid of the little salamanders that got into her home and wondered whether she should seek professional help. "We talked about whether it was getting in the way of her functioning, which it wasn't," Dr. Jarrett says. "She basically just didn't like them." So Dr. Jarrett suggested that she pick up the salamanders and throw them outside. She protested, Dr. Jarrett says, so she suggested, "How about if you sweep them into the dustpan and throw them into the yard? See if you can do that." She could.
"Once she saw she could actually do this, eventually she's going to learn there's nothing to be afraid of," Dr. Jarrett says. "That's called exposure therapy. It's what your grandmother told you: 'You have to face your fear.' "
Another woman became anxious while driving on the freeway. Dr. Jarrett suggested the woman first drive on Sunday mornings, when not many people are on the road. After the woman became confident, she began driving on Sunday afternoons. And, Dr. Jarrett says, "before you know it," she was driving Monday mornings.
However, Dr. Jarrett says, "If a person really cannot do it on their own, meaning to expose themselves repeatedly until they're no longer afraid ... if the distress is interfering with functioning, it might be time to seek professional help."
Dr. Daniel B. Pearson III, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, says that sometimes avoidance is OK. If you're scared of spiders, for example, but don't obsess over them, then you could simply let someone else sweep in corners where spiders might be. He offers these suggestions for dealing with fear and its resulting anxiety.
"Most of the simple techniques can be used in many situations, but a quiet place is helpful," Dr. Pearson says. "I tell people to practice these on a regular basis, so when they do get into a ... situation, they can use the techniques automatically."
Progressive relaxation: Relax different parts of your body, starting with your toes, for example, and working upward to your face and head.
Visualization: Imagine yourself in a pleasant place. "While there, one might leave his stress, anxiety or fear behind," Dr. Pearson says.
Patterned breathing exercises: Breathe deeply and slowly. As you do it, you might use visualization to "blow away" the stress, anxiety or fear, he says.
READERS TELL WHAT MAKES THEM QUAKE
Nanette K. Rico of Carrollton is OK with cloth puppets and finger puppets. But let her see a marionette and she "cannot get away from the situation quickly enough." "As irrational as this sounds, I must not be the only one, as Webster defines the word: pupaphobia," says Ms. Rico, 48.
Snakes give Estella Robinson the willies. "As a child, I witnessed my uncle place all my aunt's credit cards in a wooden box filled with snakes," says Ms. Robinson, 54, who lives in Plano. "And another incident was while a child playing in the yard, I saw a beautiful stick in the yard and just as I bent over to pick it up, it was a snake."
Put Jennifer Turner down for a fear of geckos. "It seems like every time I open the door at night to let my dogs in or out, a gecko finds its way into my home," says Ms. Turner, 41, who lives in Allen. "If the critter cannot be found, I start crying and laughing at the same time, begging my husband to move heaven and Earth to find it. "When I was a child, a deliveryman came to the house and when we opened the door, a gecko came in. ... He caught it, and when he tried to toss it into the yard, the suction on its feet made it stick to his hand. I just remember it ... creeping me out."
Tommy Huntington of Dallas fears bad weather, and with good reason. On March 17, 1987, he was driving a delivery truck and the wind was so strong it picked up him and his truck and set them into the flooded flood plain of the Trinity River East Fork in Forney. "When you're a truck driver, you have to keep pushing through the weather â€“ tropical storms, hurricanes ... I've been through them all. ... Sometimes now, all it takes is a gum wrapper to blow in front of the car and, wham, it all comes back," says Mr. Huntington, 46.
Leslie Evans, 30, has two fears: climbing on a ladder and costumed theme-park animals. "People dressed up where you can't see their faces really creeps me out," says the former Arlington resident, who now lives in Columbus, Ark.
Public restrooms. The ocean. Bugs. Tornadoes and storms. Snakes. These are a few of Vicki Warren's fear-inducing, not-favorite things. "This doesn't disrupt my life like you'd think it would," says Ms. Warren, 44, who lives in DeSoto. "You might think, 'Oh, my, this woman doesn't do anything!' But I just live my life like everybody else."
Nothing creeps out Kimberly Loyd like rats. "I hate them, I hate them. My grandchildren call them hamsters, gerbils and mice, but to me they are all cut from the same cloth," says McKinney resident Ms. Loyd, who turns 48 today. "They're nasty and run fast and could probably get your leg. ... I firmly believe that when you die, whatever your worst fear is, if you're a sinner that's what you're going to live with. ... That is why I pray daily to be a good person."
Cat Huitt is "petrified" of crickets. "They are evil," says Ms. Huitt, 39, of Dallas. "You never know which way they are going to jump. They could jump right on your face! One jumped on me at a football game, and my scream stopped play. It really is ridiculously sad."