When we think about it, all our emotions serve a purpose. Fear is no exception, even though it’s generally unpleasant. In the simplest terms, fear keeps us safe – at least when it’s working the way it’s supposed to. Healthy fear is like a smoke detector. Smoke detectors can save your life by being loud and obnoxious when you have smoke and fire in your house. Unhealthy fear is more like a malfunctioning smoke detector. Maybe it goes off at random times. Maybe it never shuts off. In those cases, the smoke detector isn’t working right and isn’t protecting you. When fear is unhealthy and overactive, it tells us safe things aren’t safe. Over time, that – can be linked to things like heart problems, as well as an overall decreased quality of life. Unhealthy fear ends up being literally unhealthy.
The problem is that it can be hard to tell when fear starts getting unhealthy. There’s no easy, definite way of knowing when we’ve crossed the line from healthy to unhealthy, but there are some things to consider.
How Much is Fear Interfering with Your Life?
Leaning on the smoke detector analogy, I love to cook. It’s both a hobby and a passion. Feeding ourselves and our loved ones is also essential. I once lived in a place which had a smoke detector so sensitive that I couldn’t cook without it going off half the time. Sometimes it started blaring when I boiled water. At first, my girlfriend and I would take turns waving a towel in front of the smoke detector while I cooked. When that didn’t work, we set up a complicated series of fans (Rube Goldberg would have been proud!) to blow any smoke out the windows next to the stove. We also had to keep the windows open any time I cooked – not fun in December. It got to the point that neither of us wanted to cook because it meant that the alarm would likely go off. We got our landlord’s permission to replace the alarm, but that took a while.
In this case, the literal false alarms caused behavior that interfered with living our lives in a way that is important to us. For some people, not being able to cook at home is no big deal. They might just order food. I’ve enjoyed cooking most of my life, so it’s a major disruption of how I want to live. Dealing with the malfunctioning smoke alarm became an important concern.
There are, of course, some extreme situations that require more extreme behaviors (e.g., long-term isolating during a pandemic), but those are more uncommon situations. Even then, when fear is so great that our responses get in the way of priorities or essential needs, it’s worth considering if the fear and behavior is unhealthy and excessive.
Check the Facts
With smoke detectors, we can easily check to see if there really is a fire. That’s an easy way to tell if it’s doing its job or not. Do we smell smoke? Do we see fire? Is someone outside doing a barbeque? If none of them are true, and the smoke alarm is still going off, the odds are that the smoke detector is malfunctioning. Applying the same process to our own fears and behaviors can be tricky – but helpful.
- Is there any solid evidence that my fear is happening or about to happen?
- What is that evidence?
- What is the likelihood the fear happening?
- How important is it for me to invest time and effort into this fear?
This is a process called reality testing that many therapists will use with clients. Sometimes they will go through this together, step-by-step, and write it all down. When they’re done, clients might discover that their fears are realistic. Sometimes the clients discover their fears are unrealistic, and then they work together to reframe the fears in a way that matches the facts.
For example, if I’m in my garden in Seattle, and I’m constantly scared of bears showing up in my garden, what if I build a 10-foot fence to keep bears out? I live in the middle of the city. I can’t think of a single time a bear was in my neighborhood, let alone my garden. It’s never happened to anyone I know, either. Based on the above questions, it sounds like my bear fence is unreasonable, and it’s highly unlikely a bear is going to invade my garden.
While therapists are great resources for working through this (find Take This’ mental health resources here), trusted family and friends can also help us. There are pros and cons to both. Trusted family and friends are generally more accessible. They’re cheaper and you usually don’t need an appointment. On the flip side, mental health professionals are specifically trained to help with stuff like this and are legally required to keep what you say confidential. As an aside, more and more mental health professionals are offering therapy services via video conferencing or telephone, which helps with accessibility.
Control What You Can Control…Within Reason
It’s worth noting that healthy fear involves some uncertainty. There will always be things outside our control and things we can’t predict. Identifying what we can reasonably do to help a situation can be empowering to us. That word “reasonable” is important, and what’s reasonable to each person is different, based on our priorities. Overreacting and doing more than what is reasonable can end up causing problems.
Psychologist Rollo May once gave the example of protecting a child from cars in the street. Teaching children to look both ways before crossing is healthy and reasonable. Keeping them inside their whole lives isn’t. The trick becomes being able to say, “I did what I could reasonably do!” and then accepting the consequences, hoping for the best. That’s another place where trusted, outside sources like therapists, family, and friends can reassure us and remind us that we did our best, especially if something happens outside our control.
Fear is a tricky emotion. It’s tough to acknowledge that something so unpleasant serves an essential function. It’s sometimes even tougher to recognize when fear isn’t helpful. Reality testing our fears can be challenging, but trusted friends, family, and therapists are great tools for it. They can help us recognize when our fears are reasonable and help us change when they aren’t. After all… it’s dangerous to go alone.