Did you know that fear can control your behavior if you let it? David Ropeik an instructor at Harvard University and co-author of “RISK! A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You” argues that humans are hard-wired to fear first and think second. Knowing that you have a surgery scheduled you worry about all kinds of things; needles, anaesthetic, whether you will wake up or die under the knife. This writer for instance has a bizarre fear of heights.
On a trip to Mecca five years ago I could not climb higher than a certain height as when I turned around I was almost looming over the city and felt like giving in to gravity and toppling over. How does one deal with phobias and this kind of fear? People who have never experienced anxiety and had full-blown panic attacks do not understand the fear of the sufferer and even though it is demonstrated to you time and again that you can conquer fear, the person does not believe it. Not fully. Not easily. Scientists agree that fear originates in a part of the brain called the amygdala where the ‘fight or flight’ response is launched.
According to Dr Christopher Leonhard of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology who specializes in phobias and anxiety, our bodies come biologically prepared to go into a fear reaction’. The question, however is not whether a fear is learned or instinctive, but rather what it is that causes the person to respond so fearfully. To paraphrase, ‘what is learned early on and quickly, is the type of circumstance in your environment that causes you to go into that fear response.’ What can be learned from this is that while fear is instinctive and necessary for survival one can be taught what to fear.
Treatment for fear
Some medications can effectively treat fears and anxieties and this should be administered only after consulting a doctor. Another way to treat fear is extinction which involves a step-by-step approach to confront your fears. The idea behind this kind of therapy is to ‘feel’ and process the fear, to face it, and in time to conquer that fear. Leonhard is quick to remind you that while the benefits of extinctions are long-lasting it does not mean that the person will not have another fearful response. “But now you’ll know what to do.”
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