Echoes of Fear
Consistent exposure can keep anxiety at bay.
Posted December 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Conquering your fears doesn’t mean getting rid of them once and for all.
- When you haven’t confronted a fear in a while, your brain defaults to the safest assumption—which means being on guard for danger.
- When you face what you’re afraid of, and nothing bad happens, you feel less afraid.
Today, I’ve asked Seth J. Gillihan to share his Tip of the Week.
Earlier this year, I was so excited to get together with my youngest brother and his family for the first time since the pandemic—and to meet my new nephew. So when we settled into the living room to catch up, I couldn’t understand why I suddenly wanted to flee. My brother and I have a close relationship, and I love his wife.
As this fear washed over me, I realized I hadn’t shared extended time in person with anyone outside my household in over three years. I’m prone to social anxiety in this kind of situation, and it had grown since I’d been out of practice facing it.
It turns out my reaction was exactly what research would predict. In a classic three-phase study, participants were shown pictures, some of which were followed by an “annoying but not painful” electric shock. Not surprisingly, the participants developed a fear response to the shock-paired pictures.
Next, participants were shown the same pictures without any shocks, and their fear responses went way down. In the absence of harm, they learned not to be afraid.
What happened in the final phase, when participants were tested again without being shocked? You might expect that they would show little fear since they had learned that the pictures don’t mean they’re about to get an annoying zap. But that’s not what happened. Instead, their fear returned.
When you face what you’re afraid of, and nothing bad happens, you feel less afraid. But that doesn’t mean your anxieties are erased, never to return. When you haven’t confronted a fear in a while, your brain defaults to the safest assumption—which means being on guard for danger.
Don’t react to others’ unexpected fear with criticism, such as “I thought you were over this already!”
Do face your fears consistently and in multiple contexts, which minimizes an anxious response—and help the young people in your life to do the same. Conquering fear doesn’t mean getting rid of it once and for all. It means deciding to face it as often as you need to so that nothing gets in the way of living the life you want.
With courage and gratitude,
Seth J. Gillihan is a clinical psychologist and the author, most recently, of Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Simple Path to Healing, Hope, and Peace.