Coping With Fear ~ gibbsonline.com



Coping with Fear

Gibbs A. Williams, Ph.D.

 

Coping with Fear

Fear is a normal, natural, and healthy response to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and America. Fear is the perception of a real threat to the integrity of an individual contrasted with anxiety. Anxiety feels the same as fear but is an imagined rather than an actual threat to the self. Fear {and anxiety} are feelings we experience when the autonomic nervous system releases adrenaline energizing the system for fight or flight. In this connection fear functions as an absolutely necessary alarm, motivating individuals to be hyper alert. This hyper alertness enables a person to take whatever necessary defensive or offensive appropriate actions to adequately protect them from known and often unknown anticipated harm.

While fear is thus highly valuable, it is equally true that fear is often initially experienced as terrifyingly traumatic, demoralizing and in many cases paralyzing. This is so because most human beings are used to and prefer balance, routine, and relative safety rather than feeling disoriented, uncertain, and vulnerable. The terrorists use these psychological facts as the essence of their calculated attempts to use terror as a potentially highly effective weapon of psychological warfare.

Obviously a negative attitude towards fear is dangerous to each and every individual who succumbs to its negative power. President Roosevelt understood this fact very well, when responding to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, asserted:"the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Urgently needed then, are defensive and offensive psychological weapons to successfully combat the potentially destructive consequences associated with submitting to a negative attitude towards fear.

Complicating this issue is the fact that a person's reaction to a fear inducing event is the ripple affect of trauma. It is difficult enough that a person has to cope with containing and surmounting complicated mixed feelings in the present. Worse is the fact that an aversive stimulus in the present has the power to stimulate unresolved traumas from the person's past. This overlapping of the traumatized here and now with the unresolved traumatic there and then converges, resulting in a flooding of negative feelings and fantasies. This flooding threatens and in many cases actually results in overwhelming a person's capacity to keep one's system intact. The net affect is a serious threat of individual and collective psychological breakdown. What then can be done to prevent this calamity from becoming an unthinkable reality?

Ideally, the best solution for helping individuals cope with fear would be working with trained professionals on a one to one basis for as long as they need to work through their individual problems. Clearly this is not feasible. There is an urgent need to intervene on a large scope and do so in a way that the interventions will effectively contribute to a restoration of a person's normal' capacity to carry on as usual.

In this light the following exercise is offered as a method for effectively coping with the potentially debilitating effects of fear.

- Recall in detail the worst {traumatic} experience of your life. - Detail your feelings of this stressful event. - Detail whatever dire predictions you made about your precarious state of affairs i.e.fantasies of catastrophe. - Detail what actually happened about six months after first experiencing your trauma. - Do this same exercise for as many personal traumas as you can recall. - Detail any parallels between these various events.

Don't read further until you have completed the exercise.

- If you have thoroughly completed the exercise then you must be impressed with indisputably good news. This news is that no matter how dire the events, and no matter how frightening the associated fantasies {such as the end of the world has finally come; I will die; there is no way I can ever be happy again etc.} you have survived to tell your tale. Thus if you can state your name and count the ten fingers of your hands you know you are conscious. If conscious then you can make choices to help you continue to survive and perhaps even thrive.

- The key to successfully coping with fear is to adopt the professional actor's motto applied to the tasks of daily living. This motto indicates that no matter what real or imagined events threaten the integrity of the person "the show must go on". The exercises above are proof positive that in each survivor's actual experience - no matter how pessimistic about the predicted outcome - the worst fear's did not materialize. Thus utilizing the law of probability - if one has endured the worst of the past no matter how terrible the event; then, short of death, one is likely to survive the worst of the present.

The key,then,to successfully counter attacking the terrorists on a personal level is, that while acknowledging the precariousness of life, one remains resolutely steadfast and determined - not obsessively dwelling on the inevitable reality of death; but, instead, courageously making life affirming choices - containing and surmounting inevitable fear while understandably concerned and scared yet, at the same time, celebrating and fully participating in the reality of being presently alive.

Gibbs A. Willliams Ph.D. New York City, New York September, 2001



Copyright ©2001 Gibbs A. Williams