We are obviously biologically programmed to respond quickly to danger. Threats can be to our physical well-being, yet also to our psychological and emotional status. Being asked to come to the boss’ office can trigger an anxious thought of demotions or firing, whether this has any basis in fact. Individuals often confuse the possibility of an event with the probability of an event – a crucial difference. While a plane you are on could theoretically crash, the odds of that happening are essentially zero. We wish for absolute security where there is none. Interestingly, gamblers and phobics have similar distortions of probability, but in different directions. While gamblers ignore how small their actual chances are of winning, thereby forging ahead to place their bets anyway, phobics hugely escalate the chances of something bad happening, and therefore avoid situations completely despite little risk.
An important feature of a fear response is that the body activates instantly when it perceives danger, whether is it a real danger or not. Also, while our bodies have an immediate on switch, they do not have an immediate off switch. This discrepancy causes a variety of problems. For some individuals, the physiological symptoms of arousal that come with fears can be frightening themselves, thereby creating an escalating loop. This is often associated with an anxiety attacks that persist.
Let’s explore some further examples of situations when individuals may become fearful unnecessarily. There is ride at Universal Studios theme park called “Back to the Future”, which is based upon the movie of the same name. On this ride, people sit in Delorean “cars” which is atop a pedestal programmed expertly to tilt in synchrony with a movie. The Deloreans have the illusion of blasting off, flying through windows, over lava flows, dodging fierce animals, and a variety of exhilarating (or terrifying) challenges. There are some individuals who react with fear, as if they are on a roller coaster that is hurtling them to possible harm or death. The reality however is that if they take their eyes off the movie screen, and turn their heads, they will see other “cars” tilting in rhythm to the movie. There is noactual danger of harm. There is a similar effect at Epcot Center’s ride, “Soaring”, which gives the illusion of flying over mountains and lakes, while individuals are never more than three feet off the ground.
Children on haunted house rides may be frightened when they are unable to discern true danger from being startled by plastic or mechanized figures. It is always interesting to see at what age children move from a real fear response, to feeling somewhat safer, and ultimately not being activated by the ride designers’ attempts to scare them.
Let’s say that on Halloween, someone points a gun at you. You may forget the date, and be quite terrified, yet the “gun” may be made of plastic, or even of chocolate. He even may break off a piece of it to share with you! You were never in danger from this gun, but the idea of a gun. We want to be self-protective and prudent, yet we also must have some discrimination function that allows us to separate real danger from illusion, and true threat from exceedingly low risk. This can admittedly be a challenge. Too unresponsive, and we might suffer unnecessarily by our failure to assess. Too reactive, and we fight battles that are irrelevant or non-existent. The overreactive pattern has the added burden of activating our bodies, and keeping them in a state of physiological arousal that has negative health consequences itself.
Sometimes we use “security blankets” to help us, such as lucky charms, and superstitious rituals. These may not offer any real added protection, but they may provide some comfort if the individual has the belief that they keep them safe. In the children’s movie, “Dumbo”, the elephant ultimately learns to fly by opening his enormous ears and holding his “magic” feather. He repeatedly performs his unique skill in a circus, wowing the audience in the process. One day however, after jumping off the high platform, he loses his feather, and begins a downward spiral towards the ground. Simultaneously, his coach, a mouse on his trunk, is screaming at him, “It’s NOT the feather!” Charming and instructive.
We are all learning to hold more positive beliefs and devise improved coping skills, knowing that having those perspectives lead to exploring our environment more confidently. To return to the ride at Universal Studios, to reduce the fear in that situation, an individual has only to know that it is a movie, or perhaps take their eyes off the screen to gain relief. In a parallel way, we often have “movies” going in our heads that may have been created by assumptions, creativity, or historical associations. I am fond of the quote, “The world expands or constricts in proportion to one’s courage”. Approaching rather than avoiding new situations allows for greater learning, the development of new skills, and deepening of our capabilities. That sounds encouraging, though I’m scared I won’t remember that!
Jayson DeLeaumount, DPT