Fear is with us all the time. Anyone who hates flying will tell what what it is like to board a plane. The same feeling surfaces if we stand on a tall building with a fear of heights, when we have to take a test or face a difficult situation. The fear can lead to anxiety, procrastination and catastrophic thinking. These very specific fears are very well known but many people suffer from deep seated fear, often hidden, that drives their behavior. As a therapist, I often deal with people with a generalized anxiety disorder or such disorders as agoraphobia. Often it is difficult to identify what the fear driving everything is and the people affected appear to be unable to pinpoint anything specific. This often makes the situation worse and can bring on panic attacks. One can describe it as the fear of the fear.
Medical experts tell us that the anxious feeling we get when we’re afraid is a standardized biological reaction. It’s pretty much the same set of body signals, whether we’re afraid of getting bitten by a dog, getting turned down for a date, getting our taxes done or if we cannot identity the cause. Fear, like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding—if we choose to accept it—of our psycho-biological status. And according to various studies done, there are only five basic fears that we can attribute our fear to , out of which almost all of our other so-called fears are manufactured. These are:
- Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just calling it “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.
- Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.
- Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
- Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group or significant other, can have a devastating psychological effect on its target.
- Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
Some other emotions we know by various popular names are just aliases for these primary fears. If you track them down to their most basic levels, the basic fears show through. Jealousy, for example, is an expression of the fear of separation, or devaluation: “She’ll value him more than she values me.” At its extreme, it can express the fear of ego-death: “I’ll be a worthless person.” Envy works the same way. Shame and guilt express the fear of—or the actual condition of—separation and even ego-death. The same is true for embarrassment and humiliation. Fear of rejection? That’s fear of separation, and probably also fear of ego-death. The terror many people have at the idea of having to speak in public is basically fear of ego-death. Fear of intimacy, or “fear of commitment,” is basically fear of losing one’s autonomy. Agoraphobia can be attributed to most if not all of the basic five as can a general anxiety disorder. If we truly see fear and anxiety as information, then we can use the signals given by our body to understand and aid recovery.
On the same subject, I came across an extremely interesting piece of research on the rise of anxiety. It described it as the “modern disease” and that our modern lifestyles are mostly responsible. Psychologists have identified a long list of modern experiences that evoke generalized anxiety. In this list, I add a few others.
- We wake to an unpleasant alarm as though in a war.
- The news is a long catalog of disturbing events.
- We work to an unnatural schedule such as an eight-hour day that ignores fatigue and boredom.
- We drive to work at the same time as everyone else creating unnecessary congestion, anxiety, and frustration
- We watch too much television that is believed to act as a depressant.
- We avoid talking to “strangers” even if we see them every day.
- Constant loud noise, smog, and other industrial stressors.
- Emphasis on competition for academic success, sports trophies, salaries, etc
- We move frequently, losing social support.
- We prefer to live in cities rather than in the countryside or small towns.
- We are hassled by marketers in our spare time.
- Rising narcissism is now recognized as a factor in modern depression and social media does not help.
Doctors and therapists have long tried to negate the effects of the above with medication and therapeutic interventions. However, we have it in our hands to change the way we live and at least try to reduce the effects of our modern world. Just as psychologists and doctors are well aware of many everyday experiences that promote anxiety, we are also aware that modern lifestyles omit many of the off buttons for anxiety enjoyed by people in more laid back communities.
- Physical activity increases not just fitness and health but psychological well-being.
- Relaxation time regularly scheduled.
- Distracting hobbies and activities.
- Playing games, including electronic games.
- Relaxation training, meditation, yoga, and other techniques that lower blood pressure.
- Aimless conversation with friends and acquaintances.
- Having a large social network and feeling that we belong in the community
- Embracing and kissing intimate companions
- Caring for children and others.
- Having dogs and other pets.
- Artistic pursuits such as playing music, painting, and creative writing.
- Slow-paced activities such as fishing, or shopping.
- Appreciation of natural beauty.
- Time out from news and social media.
- Eating the right foods and at the right time
As our world becomes inevitably more and more fast paced, it is sensible to believe that anxiety is here to stay. However, it is possible to reduce it by making a few changes to our lifestyles and the way we do things. Most of the “off” buttons mentioned are well within our control and we can make the choice to take action. I leave you with a quote :
“Such anxieties are a natural aspect of being alive and being designed by natural selection to remain that way as long as possible. Yet, our regular anxiety levels are unnaturally elevated. It is as though modern conditions are flipping far too many on buttons and and far too few off buttons”.
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies with a speciality in CBT techniques. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr. Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who find taking therapy online as convenient and tailored for their needs. More Details HERE