How to Turn Down the Volume on Your Fears

by Kelley Garry Marschall, MA

How to Turn the Volume Down on FearFear isn’t always right. It just feels like it’s right. Fear is like the loud talker at a meeting everyone just agrees with because he’s loud, intimidating, and seems like he knows what he’s talking about. He seems like he knows what he’s talking about because, well, he’s loud and intimidating.

That’s a lot like how persistent fear gets our attention.

The fear feeling seems to pop up from the slippery, reptilian part of the brain and shout “WATCH OUT!” to the rest of the body. Then, if the fear isn’t imminent, the front, more advanced part of the brain seems to try to make sense of this feeling using some sort of story line with images, sounds, and a scary narrator. That’s when the feature film starts to roll in the brain—the one where we star as the victim of some campy, horrific tale.

To move beyond fear, sometimes you have to question it. Doing so can help you more calmly and rationally decide how to respond to the frightening stories your brain tells you.

When working with anxiety, worry, and obsessive compulsion (OCD) , the narrator seems to be especially creative and the fear feeling especially formidable. Exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy helps people with obsessive thought patterns, social anxiety, and other fear-driven issues by providing the tools to question the internal narrative. It does this—after a lot of education and therapeutic relationship building—by purposefully, systematically exposing a person to feared situations or thoughts (exposure) without use of their physical or mental rituals (response prevention). There is no actual danger present during this process, and repeating the exposures over time causes anxiety to drop (habituation).

Part of what ERP does is help turn down the volume of the narrator fueling the fear. It’s all easier said than done, but here are three supplemental concepts that may help.

1. Give Up the Quest for Certainty

To move beyond fear, sometimes you have to question it. Doing so can help you more calmly and rationally decide how to respond to the frightening stories your brain tells you.

If they’re honest, most people will admit to being a little controlling here and there—trying to make sure everything is just so, so NOTHING goes wrong. One of the overarching concepts we deal with in ERP is a quest for the absolute. We help people who want to know with 100% certainty the sun will come up tomorrow; that the red spot on the floor isn’t Ebola-contaminated blood; and if they step on a crack, no one they love will be hurt. As one person put it, “I’m 99% sure nothing bad will happen, but it’s the 1% that really gets you!”

It helps to remember you have a pretty good chance of handling whatever comes your way with your own innate qualities, and that you can enlist a therapist, friends, or family for help if needed.

2. Accept That It’s All a Giant Mess

The world really is an uncertain place. We can’t know the future, but we can try our best to prepare, accept that it’s the best we can do, and move on. We can accept that the human brain is programmed to look for, and pay attention to, problematic or scary situations.

We can practice noticing our attention to worrisome thoughts (the brain is just doing its job) but not fully engage in the story line. Instead, try to take a “Yes, dear,” half-listening approach and shift your attention to what you actually want to think about.

3. Avoid Avoidance

Fear grows and metastasizes when you avoid dealing with it. A gnawing feeling of fear can compel you to live small and avoid opportunities to experience new things or expand your social circle.

Trust what you know—what you have evidence for—over what you don’t know. Challenge your fears when possible and remember that although they’re there to serve you biologically, they rarely do in practice.

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