We have all likely heard about the shooting in a Noblesville, Indiana middle school on May 25th that seriously injured a teacher and a student. Thankfully, no lives were lost. Yet, from January 1 through the date of incident in Noblesville, our nation had suffered 28 shootings in elementary and secondary schools that resulted in the deaths of 44 people and injuries to 60 others. More recently on June 28th, five journalists working for the Capitol Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland were killed by a man who reportedly held a years-long grudge against the newspaper.
Shortly after our 9/11 national tragedy, then President George W. Bush urged the citizens of our county not to give into fear. His words echoed those of President Franklin Roosevelt, who, in the midst of the fear, carnage and heroism of World War II, memorably declared, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself!” Both recognized the disabling potential of fear. Fear can rob us of joy in living. Fear can weaken our ability to advocate for ourselves and those dear to us. Fear can even make us feel like prisoners in our own homes.
While our nation and communities seek ways to improve public and school safety, perhaps this is also a good time to ask, “How can we best cope with fear? “How can we avoid becoming paralyzed by worry?” “How can we support our children and loved ones and help them manage these feelings?” Here are a few suggestions:
Learn about fear and anxiety.
While clear research is lacking, it is reasonable to be concerned that violence trends in our country could contribute to an increase in the incidence of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders occur when fear and worry become sufficiently frequent and intense that they negatively affect ones quality of life. One may feel chronically tense and have trouble sleeping. One may become irritable and have trouble concentrating on tasks. Persons likely notice bodily symptoms such as rapid breathing and heart rate, cold, clammy hands and feet, muscle tension, change in skin temperature, digestive system complaints or episodes of dizziness.
When behavioral health professionals work with people suffering from anxiety, we often find that clients get substantial relief from their symptoms just by learning about anxiety and panic. Even if fear is not disabling, accurate knowledge often leads to a greater sense of control and more emotional comfort.
Understand that fear is a normal emotion.
There is nothing “crazy” about fear. Fear helps to keep us safe by putting us “on alert” to potential dangers. Fear involves a series of complex nervous system and hormonal changes in our bodies that increase our energy, stamina and physical strength and quicken our reaction time. These changes, called “the flight or fight response”, equip us to respond to and cope with threats or emergencies and better our chances of avoiding harm.
Understand how “what if” thinking may contribute to unhealthy fear.
Anxious feelings are accompanied by anxious thoughts. Especially in times of stress, our normal fear response may give way to excessive, even disabling fear and panic. Persons who engage in a lot of “What if?” thinking may be at particular risk. Devoting a lot of mental energy to thoughts like “What if I get hurt?” “What if I get sick?” “What if something terrible happens?” makes it difficult to concentrate on our work and other needs of the moment. Imagining that bad things might happen can triggers nervous system and hormonal changes that are similar to those brought on by real threats. As remarkable and helpful as our “flight or fight” system is at times, it may do a poor job of telling the difference between a real threat and a perceived or imagined one. We can make ourselves increasingly anxious, even throw ourselves into a panic, when our creative imagination has us thinking “What if?”
Learn to challenge “what if” thinking.
Anxious thinking is likely learned. Perhaps we picked it up from family members who taught us by example. Perhaps we’ve experienced disturbing or traumatic past events and now feel a need to be vigilant to avoid further unwelcome “surprises.” Don’t blame yourself for the way you think. While such thinking may make sense in the context of our unique personal experience, it can also strip away much of our “in the moment” happiness.
But just as anxious thinking can be learned, it can also be unlearned…with practice. Consider this method. Obtain a personal journal. On the first page, write down your most common “What if?” thoughts. Study what you’ve written down to commit these thoughts to memory through repetition. This will make it easier for you to “catch yourself” when you begin “worry thinking”. Keep the journal with you. Whenever you notice that you’re getting into “worry mode,” write down whatever you are thinking at the time. Writing will give you greater objectivity and “distance” from your thoughts. Eventually, you want to begin to debate these anxious thoughts, writing down why they may not be helpful or valid. Do this even if you don’t really believe it! In time, healthier more realistic ways of thinking will come more easily and begin to replace paralyzing “What ifs…”
If you have worries that might benefit from being “checked out” medically, do so. Action is an antidote for fear. For example, since fear can increase both your heart rate and muscle tension, it is common for people to “feel something” in the chest. The fear of a heart problem only makes the fear worse. Consult with your doctor. Get the reassurance you need to put this “what if…” to rest. Get treatment if it is needed. Please avoid “doctor hopping”. Some people are so afraid (convinced?) that something is wrong that they are unwilling to accept normal test results or a doctor’s “clean bill of health.” They will go to doctor after doctor seeking to confirm their suspicions. This can be counterproductive, potentially harmful and may strengthen, rather than ease, our fears.
Face your fear…if (and only if) it’s safe.
I recall reading an article about a flight attendant who developed an intense fear of flying after surviving the crash of a small commuter plane. Yet, she loved her job and wanted to resume her career. She chose to try to overcome her fear by flying as a passenger on the same type of plane and on the same route as the ill-fated flight. She was terribly fearful, but she clung to the knowledge that air travel is one of the safest ways to get around and that the likelihood of another mishap was extremely low. While, her first flight after the accident was a “white knuckler,” this worked for her. She was able to go back to work. This example may seem “radical,” but the basic principle (called “exposure”) is sound. One of the more reliable ways to conquer a worry is to face what we are afraid of and learn first hand that it’s not as bad as we had feared. But we have to be cautious. This approach isn’t appropriate for everyone nor for every kind of fear. Consider these questions. Is the fear so intense that it is really beyond my ability to cope? Do I run any mental and/or physical risk if I try to face my fear? Could this make my fear worse? If we are unsure, we shouldn’t do this. Instead, we would be better served to seek guidance from a mental health or other health professional about the best way to address persistent the problem.
Talk with others about your fears.
Many people remain silent about their fears and anxieties out of embarrassment. They may believe fear is a sign of personal weakness or a character flaw. It may help to keep in mind that fear is a normal response to threatening circumstances. By taking the risk of sharing our worries with a trusted friend, partner, doctor, pastor, or a counselor we will likely find support, common ground, a measure of relief and the beginning of a pathway to recovery.
Talk to our kids about their fears.
Frightening events can affect both young and old. Yet our children are particularly susceptible to unrealistic worries. Young kids have an especially hard time understanding the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. Their “What if?” thinking can be especially vivid and upsetting for them. Listen to them, hold them and reassure them. Especially in the “information age” it’s nearly impossible to protect our children from finding out what’s been going on around us. Answer their questions truthfully in words they can understand. Tell them that they are safe and that you are “there” for them. Kids are keenly aware when a parent or other caregiver is fearful. A parent’s fears can become a child’s worries. This means that another good way we can help our kids with their fears is to take responsibility for and learn to cope well with our own fears and worries.
Seek qualified professional help.
Even though our society has become more open in discussing matters of health and wellness, many still hesitate to seek help for emotional concerns. Sadly, due to this persistent stigma, many remain untreated and suffer needlessly. Anxiety is treatable. Success rates are high. If one’s own efforts and the support of loved ones have not succeeded in loosening the grip of fear, consider professional help. Talk to your doctor or contact a mental health professional if you have concerns about yourself, your child or a loved one.
Our world can be scary at times. It makes sense for us to respect our feelings and exercise appropriate caution. Yet, we need not remain immobilized by fear. Fear can be lessened and quality of life restored.
Submitted on behalf of the Regional Mental Health Coalition of Northeast Indiana and written by:
Richard E. Ruhrold, Ph.D., HSPP
Senior Vice President, Clinical Services
Otis R. Bowen Center
More resources available on our Anxiety Topic Page here.
If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of distress, please reach out to a mental health professional or get confidential, free support and text LOOKUP to 494949.
If you live in Indiana and need help finding a behavioral health provider, visit Find Help or call (800) 284-8439.