Fears in everyday life can range from minor disturbances that we breeze past to crippling events that cause us to avoid certain situations completely. For example, imagine riding a public bus. Everything seems normal at first, but you then see someone cough and realize how close you are to them. What if they have tuberculosis? Could you catch it? You then notice the driver runs over the curb while driving. The driver surely isn’t competent and the trip will inevitably lead to a rollover accident at some point. In the meantime, you smell something that vaguely resembles smoke. You decide that you no longer need to worry about the rollover because the bus is going to start on fire before that happens with you trapped inside, perishing to a fiery demise.
Because of that experience and the fears that arose, it would be much easier to just skip riding the bus altogether, right? The fear is avoided and the problem is solved, but now you have just extremely limited your range of travel and exposure to the outside world. We can see through this story that the fears experienced on the bus are a bit irrational and are very unlikely to happen, despite how real they felt.
Let’s look at an alternate scenario. The person coughing? They simply swallowed a gulp of water down the wrong pipe and are completely healthy. The driver was forced to hit the curb in an attempt to avoid a near collision with another vehicle. Their competence was actually the thing keeping you safe. Oh, and the smell of smoke? The wind changed when you were at a stoplight, pushing some of the exhaust through an open window behind you.
Unfortunately, when we have a fear, our minds often take it the foreseen consequences to level 10. Conjuring the worst-case scenario is a protective mechanism that we have evolved throughout time to keep us safe. Imagine when our ancestors traveling in the jungle. If a twig snaps, you better be ready for a tiger to leap at you even though it was probably just a squirrel (do they have squirrels in the jungle?) hopping to a different tree because it was scared of you. When these fears manifest in our everyday lives, they can take control of our minds, making it difficult to tell our minds to ease up a bit.
Luckily, this is something that experts in psychology have been deeply invested in. Below, I will detail some of the best information I found in the scientific literature to restructure your fear networks. The methods largely pull from some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques discussed by Wells and Papageorgiou in a paper they wrote in 2004 along with a few other scholarly articles. Before the methods, it is important to say that if you have access to a therapist who can walk you through CBT, definitely take that route. However, many people don’t have the time or means to access this resource or may be afraid to go to a therapist. If you are in any of these categories, read on. If not, you may still find added benefit from a different point of view, so read on as well.
For most of us, fear comes from having trouble assessing true threats coupled with poor coping mechanisms for when this happens. Because of this, we may have lingering negative thoughts that can affect our lives on a daily basis. We may ruminate about these thoughts and hold onto the fear which will inevitably decrease our state of mental health and quality of life in general. To solve this, here are some techniques from mental health experts to decrease your fear through cognitive restructuring.
One of the biggest components that can cultivate fear is the unknown. Going back to the bus example, you probably didn’t know how unlikely it is to come across someone with tuberculosis or even how it is spread for that matter. Furthermore, your bus route only follows residential streets, so unless something catastrophic happened it would be practically impossible for the bus to roll over. Also, do you even know what a bus on fire smells like?
Correcting misconceptions we have about our fear is the first step to overcoming it . Referring back to the example, when we think about it rationally, the distortions in the thought process become much more clear, showing us that the fear we have is actually very unlikely to occur. However, holding onto the fear will end up harming us much more than it will help us. Once we realize this, we can begin to overcome fear.
“negative thoughts are seen merely as events in the mind that should be treated as objects, and efforts should be devoted to changing one’s relationship with them”
Write down your top fears and begin to make a list of what makes you afraid of them. With the bus, being afraid of coughing comes from a fear that you could contract a disease that would severely diminish your quality of life. The rollover is scary because it could lead to serious injury.
Then, write down the advantages and disadvantages of holding onto that fear. An advantage would be self-preservation for the one in a gazillion chance that the negative outcome occurs. Don’t get me wrong, self-preservation is great! Well, except when it comes to disadvantages having consequences that also impact your life negatively, which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place. Think about the disadvantages of not confronting your fear. Not being able to travel outside of walking distance because you are unwilling to take public transportation will have a direct effect on your life. Completing basic errands, socializing, and finding any enjoyment outside of the home will become much more difficult. Ultimately, you will realize that dwelling on and giving in to your fear will not help you.
Once this is done, come back to the possibilities of each advantage or disadvantage occurring and write them down. Sure, you could contract a disease, have a rollover accident or be trapped in a fiery abyss, but are those likely in the slightest sense? No. Statistics don’t make the fear go away, but they can help to establish a baseline of objective thinking. Then write about the likelihood that avoiding your fear will harm you. More often than not, avoidance will impact your life immediately. Since the goal is to overcome the fear, it is ok to be a bit biased towards the negative impacts, though you may not need to be. Review this writing at least once daily and contemplate it.
Wouldn’t it be great to have control in the moment and not take your assumptions about the fear to the extreme? With attentional training, this may be possible. If it doesn’t completely allow you to take control of your thinking, it will at least help. The main overview of the training is to allow you to keep your thinking in the present. It helps you think about your thoughts more objectively rather than extrapolate what you are sensing to an immediate reaction to fear which leads to the negative consequences you wrote down from the previous exercise. Obtaining a high amount of control won’t happen overnight. In a clinical setting, a therapist will guide patients through the training a couple days a week for many weeks. If you stay consistent and truly put in an effort, you too can acquire some of the benefits and control how you handle fear
The initial training is a bit abstract and has some deep similarities to mindfulness meditation, though it is more applied. To begin, find a comfortable place in your home and focus intensely on individual sounds, sights, smells and bodily sensations. Begin by focusing on a specific sound for a few minutes. If there is ticking from a clock, focus on that sound and try your hardest to not stray. If you do, that is ok, simply bring your attention back to the ticking.
“attentional training, which promotes external focus, can eliminate fear” -Adrian Wells
Once you have done this, switch your attention to looking at something, using the same intensity. Examine every part of the object. If it is a clock, notice the shape of the clock and the markings. Watch the movement of the hands. Take in all of the different colors. Again, for about three minutes the only thoughts in your mind should be of how the clock looks. Follow this same technique for smells. For bodily sensations, focus on each of your limbs one at a time. Notice anything you feel and how the feelings change. Imagine that there is a heavy weight attached to each limb and then imagine it being removed. Then, imagine that each limb suddenly becomes warm. Spend about a minute on each leg and each arm.
Try to pick different sources to focus on for each different training session. You will notice yourself becoming better and better at maintaining your focus. As stated earlier, this may take some time, but consistent training will pay off. After you feel yourself become more proficient, add about 3 minutes at the end (if you don’t have time, shave a minute off of the longer focus periods) where you rapidly change your focus between different sources. Quickly switch from sound to sound, still focusing intently on each . Try to divide this time evenly between sounds, sights, and bodily sensations. Skip smells as it may be difficult to differentiate between them.
Once you’ve mastered this part of your training, go to a safe, public place and follow the same routine. Pick a place with more distractions to raise the difficulty. In today’s world, our attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter. This hurts us when it comes to fear because instead of being able to focus on and objectively analyze individual thoughts, we bounce from negative moment to negative moment. Not only does this cause the fear to linger in our minds, but it also increases our anxiety about the situation.
Another helpful technique is to utilize mental imaging. Think about an image such as a tree and examine it just as you would with the sights from above. Notice everything about the image and maintain this for a few minutes, bringing yourself back to the image if your mind wanders. You may begin this whenever you feel comfortable but eventually, this should become a main staple of your training.
Once you feel comfortable with mental imaging, shift the focus from images to thoughts using the same process. Instead of trying to process the thoughts that come into your mind, just observe them sort of like the objects from earlier in your training. Maybe examine how that thought makes you feel without letting yourself bring emotions into it. Explore the thought like you explored different parts of the clock. Instead of consciously picking a specific thought, allow your mind to wander and see what thoughts come into your mind.
While it may not seem directly evident, the point of this attentional training is to increase your ability to be in the present moment and notice your feelings more objectively. When you notice the early negative thoughts arising from your fear, just observe them as you did the sights, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations earlier. Thinking “I am afraid of X” turns into “I am having thoughts about being afraid of X”. When this happens, you are no longer controlled by the emotions that would’ve followed before the training. You have the ability to monitor the thoughts and decide what to do with them. With this, you can think rationally and apply the list of disadvantages and the consequences of those disadvantages to hopefully change your mind about the nature of the fear and its importance.
Another method that has been found to be helpful with your newly acquired attentional control is to implement a “fearful thought ban”. Again, this one won’t be easy, but it has been shown to help. You can probably guess what it is from the title. The ban essentially means that when a fearful thought arises, you won’t try to understand it, find a coping mechanism, or fix it like you normally would before. Instead, you observe them like discussed earlier and tell yourself the reasons that you don’t need to be afraid. To enhance the benefits this can yield, make a log of when fearful thoughts come up in a journal and also write down how successful you were at overcoming them and what helped/didn’t help.
By doing this, you are further altering the cognitive fear networks, telling the mind to objectively engage in negative thoughts without simply covering them up or avoiding them. In order to conquer your fears, it is important to emphasize the confrontation of fearful thoughts. Otherwise, they will always remain in the back of your mind subconsciously. Another overarching goal of this process is to realize that you can actively modify your thoughts and beliefs rather than being a slave to them. The idea that you can’t change your thoughts or the way you think is common among people but erroneous. This is compounded by the fact that often there isn’t a path to change thought processes, but this training changes the game.
“patients believe erroneously that rumination is uncontrollable”
Determine your top fears and write them down in a journal format. Then, ponder the advantages and disadvantages of holding onto that fear. Write down the positive and negative impacts that ruminating and acting upon the fear will yield. Then, think about the likelihood of each advantage or disadvantage actually occurring and write that down as well, acknowledging that the disadvantages are far more likely to occur. Look over this list at least once a day.
Begin to train your ability to control your thoughts and remain in the present moment. In your home, intensely focus on and examine a sight, sound, smell and bodily sensation. If your attention strays, just bring yourself back into the exercise. Try to spend about 3 minutes per day on each category. Once you become better at this, add an additional 3 minutes at the end where you rapidly switch between sources of focus while maintaining the same intensity. To increase the difficulty and further your training, practice this in a safe, public space with more distractions.
Now that you have increased your ability to think objectively and stay in the present moment for an extended period, it’s time to move inside your mind. Using the same sort of process as before, create a mental image and focus on examining it for a few minutes, noticing distinct features and how it changes. Once adept at this, shift the focus from images to thoughts that enter your mind. Spend a couple minutes observing a single thought in your mind. Examine the features just as you did with mental imaging: notice you are having it, where it came from, how it makes you feel all without emotion or analyzing the thought itself.
Now that you have trained yourself to view thoughts objectively and can notice their features, it’s time to begin reducing your fear. The fearful thought ban means that whenever a fearful thought comes to mind, simply take notice of it and realize that it is there rather than freaking out and trying to cope or cover it up. Instead of thinking “I am afraid of X right now. What should I do?”, you will now think “I am having thoughts about being afraid of X. Why am I having a fearful thought in this situation? Is the thought justified? How is acting on this thought going to hurt me more than benefit me? Ok, I no longer need this thought and can continue with my day”. Make a journal entry every time a fearful thought comes into your mind, detailing what it arose from and how successful you were with not falling to it. This ban brings all the training together and puts it to work.
While these techniques are supported by psychological experts and real-world examples of success, they may not work for everyone. Because of this, it may be useful to try multiple different techniques to tackle your fear and anxiety. This goes without saying, but if you are on any medications or participate in a program with a therapist, don’t discontinue treatment unless you have discussed it with a medical professional. While I have spent many hours researching these techniques, I myself am not a mental health expert. My intent is simply to convey the information put out by experts in the scientific literature in practical and understandable.
By training yourself to think objectively about your thoughts, you can begin to chip away at the underlying cognitive framework that causes you to hold onto fears. You will begin to see them as irrational and unneeded, causing more damage than benefit. Fear itself can be scary when there is not a clear way to manage and reduce it. Through consistent and proper implementation of these techniques, hopefully you too can find the fear reducing benefit that many others have. Once you start, you will finally be on the path to conquering your fears.
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