In a world deeply enveloped in fear, we can choose to avoid the traps that leave us feeling helpless.
The first time I remember really feeling fear was when I was in the second grade. The cold, dry winter air did not couple well with my asthma, and one night I found myself struggling for air in the middle of a terrifying asthma attack. Usually my mom or dad would grab my albuterol to calm my panicked breaths, but this time, my medicine was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t catch my breath despite all effort, and I began to worry that I never would. My mom found my medicine after some relentless searching and my breathing settled before the situation became desperate, but I still vividly remember the feeling of fear that petrified me as I searched hopelessly for air to fill my empty lungs.
Fear is the central nervous system’s physiological and emotional response to a serious threat to one’s well being. While fear can prepare us for fight or flight responses in dangerous situations, it can also become a roadblock to progress and peace if prolonged.
After the events of 9/11, unprecedented fear and terror filled the lives of millions of Americans. Curious how such an intense fear could spread so rapidly, researchers began to study the roots of fear. Their findings completely changed my perspective of fear and how it is cultivated.
The study found that the roots of human fear stem from what researchers call risk perceptions. Risk perception suggests that we attribute fear to things that pose any risk toward us– the more the risk, the more the fear. This explains why humans appear to fear similar things (like heights or spiders), why we subconsciously decide what we are afraid of (like skydiving, even if we’ve never done it), and why our responses to risk are not always internal or rational, but rather emotional (screaming in a scary movie), reflecting our values and perceptions of a risk itself.
What are the Fear Factors?
What I found most interesting from my research about fear was that there were common underlying factors which seemed to alter how risks are perceived, ultimately increasing the fear experienced by populations at large toward a particular risk. I’ll share a few of these factors and invite you to consider how they may affect your risk perceptions and consequent fear.
Factor 1: Awareness
As our awareness of a risk increases, so does our fear. Awareness can be generated by the media, word of mouth, and even personal experience.
Factor 2: Uncertainty
The more uncertain we feel of a risk, the more afraid we are. Where did the risk come from? When? Who? Is it likely to affect me?
Factor 3: Newness
We are more afraid of risks that are new rather than those that have been around for a while. After we’ve lived with a risk for a while, we gain a better perspective and understand the real dangers posed by the risk.
Factor 4: Control
The more control we feel we have over a certain risk, the less fear we feel. Less control over a risk brings about greater fear. This is why people ride bicycles without helmets and rarely hesitate to drive their car; they are in control. Does this lessen the risk of injury or harm? Perhaps not, but it establishes a sense of control.
How can we Escape the Fear Trap?
I present these factors in hopes that you may realize, like me, that sometimes our fears do not match the facts. Whether your fears are work, school, home, family, or world-related, they can be pressing, consuming, and heavy. Yet, as we look at these factors, it’s clear that we can choose to escape the fear trap by making small, simple decisions that align our fears more with reality:
While the media presents incredible information and benefits, it can also be a fire hydrant of facts. Monitor the sources you trust, limit your time on social media, and seek information from reliable sources.
Discover What You Know
There are so many uncertain things in life, but there is so much that is certain! Although there may be aspects of risk that we cannot find the answers to, there are truths and facts that can help us to feel more certain about our future. Focus on the things you know and the things that don’t change as a result of risk.
When risks are new, they feel more threatening. We can avoid the tendency to overreact by reminding ourselves to be patient. Even when others respond fearfully to news risks, we can recognize new ways to learn, live, and grow as we become familiar with risks, instead of being afraid of them.
Control the Controllable
While some things will always lay outside of our control, we can focus on the things we can control. Study for your upcoming test; make an emergency preparedness kit; wear a seatbelt in the car. We will never be able to eliminate all risk, but we can decrease our fear as we focus on the things we can control.
In a world deeply enveloped in fear, we can choose to avoid the traps that leave us feeling helpless. Although it takes great effort, we can handle the fear we face by heightening our awareness, focusing on what we know, learning to live with risk, and recognizing our control. Risks may always abound, but we decide how we will react to them. Let us choose courage and conscience as we encounter the risks that raid our lives.
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.
Comer, R. J., & Comer, J. S. (2018). Abnormal psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers/Macmillan Learning.
Gray, G. M., & Ropeik, D. P. (2002). Dealing with the dangers of fear: the role of risk communication. Health Affairs, 21(6), 106-116.