Irrational Fear: Learning to Worry

Humans learn to fear things from their experiences. As a human, when you experience something painful, like getting stung by a bee, you store that experience in your memory unconsciously. This is how you learn from a painful experience.

However you may continue to feel afraid when you hear a buzzing similar to a bee. This happens because your memory has associated the past experience of pain with the presence of a buzzing sound.

The experience of fear is usually followed by a number of symptoms known collectively as anxiety or worry. The most common symptoms include trembling, getting short of breath, sweating, a rapid heartbeat, an increased pulse rate, headaches, upset stomach, muscles tightening up (tension), poor concentration and restlessness. Fear and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Fear is the thought, anxiety is the feeling which results. Anxiety is like a warning bell. Unfortunately, it often goes off when there is no real danger. When this happens, mental health professionals call this experience irrational fear.

All humans have some sort of irrational fears. These fears can be reduced to four stages. First, you mull a concern over and over instead of doing something about it. Next, you pile more and more worries on top of the one you started with. Third, you experience symptoms of anxiety when there is no real physical danger. Finally, the symptoms paralyze you. When irrational fear shows up as anxiety, you are afraid of something in advance and keep mulling it over without doing anything constructive. You may have little evidence that it will ever actually occur. It could even be something you cannot do much about, but you still worry. Irrational fear can also show up in a more extreme fashion: such as a feeling of dread that is directed toward a specific object or situation. In such cases the fear is well out of proportion to the actual danger, and is sometimes called a phobia.

You are not born with a phobia. A phobia is acquired through an experience that fosters memory, which is stored in the brain where it is linked with stimuli (like snakes or heights) and response (fear or panic). The snake is not a frightening thing causing the anxiety. The fear is something you make up about the snake. It is your interpretations of what it means to be near a snake that determines if you anxious or not.

Some people have associated the pain or discomfort that can occur when bitten by a snake with the image of a snake. Thus, they anticipate how they will focus on a snake bite, not just the snake itself and they do their best to avoid the slimy creatures. When fear occurs in response to real danger and keeps you careful and alert, it can be functional. Suppose that someone is about to attack you: fear could help by preparing your muscles for defense or flight. Fear can get out of hand, however. Too much fear could freeze your muscles and you are less able to protect yourself.

Some researchers suggest that most of us, are astonishingly attracted to catastrophic interpretation of things. There is a kind of habituated emotional reaction, resulting either from having the same reaction many times, or some very strong reaction one or two times. A person who believes all snakes are dangerous and will harm you, feels fear when they see any sort of real or plastic snake. The emotional “fearful” thoughts will occur without any conscious evaluation.

Someone might develop the same reaction from having a single very frightening experience with a snake, especially if that experience occurs while they are young. Others have concluded that there is no pain associated with the snake and have no problem being in the snake’s presence. Either way, the anxiety depends on what the snake means toward bringing potential pain or comfort to the person who is thinking of, or is around the snake.

Most small children have no fear of animals. They are interested in anything that moves, and if the thing also happens to be warm, soft, and fuzzy, they will like it. A child will not automatically be afraid of a big animal, such as a lion or bear. They must learn about the danger of such animals before they will be afraid of them.

Nothing will cause you to have the emotion of fear until you have learned which things you ought to be afraid of, and which are harmless. Yet, there is nothing “out there” that universally causes every human to be afraid. Humans can develop extreme fears toward all sorts of things: closed spaces, open spaces, high places, being alone, being in a crowd, animals, the dark, blood, contamination or germs, thunder or lightning, pain, fire — to name but a few.

Most of the things that you have anxiety about have to do with events or situations over which you have no control. You worry about war, the economy, the possibility of coming down with some illness, about losing your job. You worry about whether or not someone likes you, about how your family members are doing, about your weight, whether or not you will get a divorce, about getting old and even dying.

Without emotion, you have difficulty placing value on people, places, events, experiences and things. It is the emotional context that makes a thing important or incidental. But worrying about those things, won’t positively change them or prepare you in any way. You have no control over most of those things because they are not happening.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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