The terrifying monster lurking behind the closet door or under the bed has tremendous power over the imaginative child. It can force him to make choices based on fear: turn out the light at the door and run for dear life and leap on the bed, pulling the covers over his head. We can be forced to make similar choices based on fear, choices that leave us unsatisfied, unfulfilled and frightened. The monster with all this power can become a dictator, one who winds its way insidiously into our lives each time we give in to it.
Fear takes many forms. Sometimes it is in our relationships. We work for an employer who expects that we regularly stay a few hours late, or makes belittling remarks (usually with an audience). We are married to someone who places unreasonable demands on what we can accomplish (work full-time, have dinner ready, pick up the kids, make sure the laundry is done, pay the bills while I go out with my friends). We keep company with someone whose wishes always take precedence over ours. Other times it is entirely internal and we are afraid of "silly" things (elevators, going to the doctor, flying, speaking in class).
How did we become so powerless in the first place? Why did we acquiesce at the first frightening advance against our self-agency? Shall we blame our upbringing? Perhaps we learned from our parents that "nice boys and girls" obey authority, always. Perhaps we learned to be helpless in the face of abusive authority. The answers to those questions are a matter for therapy and can be very helpful in spotting occasions when we acquiesce to something that gets in the way of how we want to live.
The truth is, we have ultimate control over our choices, and can make different ones, ones based in courage, when we are armed with the right "weapons." There are many, and they are very light, easy to carry with us into any situation. Let's pack our metaphorical quivers.
Know your enemy.The first weapon we must pack is foreknowledge of our opponent (thank you, Sun Tzu). Fear, anxiety, panic must be acknowledged and never ignored. It is human nature to try to push past initial discomfort, thinking it will go away soon. But fear, like pain, is a warning, trying to get our attention that something is wrong. So we must give it our full focus. This, too, is something we can do in therapy where we are safe to explore.
Fear originates in the amygdala, a part of the ancient brain which we have in common with all other vertebrates. It recognizes threat and reacts to it with physiological symptoms designed to put us into action. Danger? Run! or Fight! Our breathing becomes faster and more shallow, our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, we perspire, the digestive system shuts down, our eyes widen, our hearing becomes more acute so that our concentration is on the perceived threat and nothing else. These are life-preserving responses to physical threat. But when we react to perceived social threat with the same physical responses, it is important to pay close attention to the cause of that fear. Drunk parent coming in the front door? Boss barreling toward your desk with your report in hand? Spouse asking why the bank account is suddenly depleted? It is important to identify just what you stand to lose, what exactly it is that you fear: loss of love, loss of respect, loss of personal integrity? Once identified, it can be examined rationally.
If we experience chronic anxiety, it may manifest itself in hives and rashes, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, frequent illnesses, and other debilitating physical symptoms. It pays in the long run to stare down your fear.
Another important thing to know about the monster is that these physiological responses are not in themselves life-threatening. No matter how extreme they are, we will not die from faster breathing and heart rate or headaches. They may all be very unpleasant and definitely unwanted, but we have powerful weapons against even these that we must next put in our quiver.
Marilyn Miller, MS, LPC ~ Psychotherapist
...Delighting every day in helping people find peace in their lives, relieving anxiety, depression, and promoting self-care.