The Gift of (Irrational) Fear
January 27, 2013 12:56 AM   Subscribe

How do you quell irrational fears? And how do you know whether it's irrational or trying to tell you something more?

My fears manifest themselves in dreams and conscious thought. Some examples of my fears:

1) Getting into a car crash: One of my recurring dreams is driving a car and it getting out of control in unfamiliar areas. This has never happened.
2) My sister's child will be born with a disorder: Irrational because my sister isn't even pregnant, and I first thought this before she was married.
3) My husband will molest our children: Irrational because I'm not married and don't even have a boyfriend, and I don't plan on having kids. But it is a really nagging fear and I don't know how to quiet it.
4) I will cheat on my spouse: Irrational because I'm single and I suppose, I'm scared of my (future?) spouse cheating on me. I'm really afraid I'll be the one to cheat on them. Even though I feel like I'm "cheating" on my crush when I like someone else, so I don't think I will be the person to cheat on a partner. I am more afraid of my spouse thinking that I guess.
5) Growing old and decaying: Right now, I feel the healthiest I've ever been, and to be vain, the most loved I've ever been. I'm afraid it's a long way down from here. How does it feel to lose youth? I feel it slipping and I'm afraid of being physically old.

Those are my most prominent fears. They are not that irrational now that I look at them, especiall #1 and 5. But #2-4, are irrational and kind of "secret" fears I don't want to discuss with friends. They are nagging and I really want them to go away. Please let me know how to address these fears.
posted by ichomp to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
These all sound like intrusive thoughts., and are a symptom of OCD. Personally, I'd talk to a therapist.
posted by empath at 1:39 AM on January 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

Perhaps you could remind yourself that although you worry, none of your fears have happened, despite the fear of it happening.

I used to have anxiety attacks. Really crippling ones, where I'd have to excuse myself at work and take a breather to calm down, but, similarly to your fears, nothing bad actually happened to me. It got to the point where I had so many anxiety attacks that I came to realize that when I could feel an attack coming on, I could stop the anxiety from continuing, because I remembered that it was just anxiety and nothing bad would actually happen. That has helped me a lot, so when you start to worry about one of your fears, take some deep breaths and remember that none of them have happened and that you're fine.

About how to know the difference between an irrational fear and a fear that is trying to tell you something- in The Gift of Fear, if I recall correctly, Gavin de Becker refers to the difference between worry and fear. Worry would be something that arrests us and traps us, whereas true fear compels you to take action to keep you safe, in a direct and active manner, almost without thinking about it. I think in the book, he mentions how the root of the word "anxiety" comes from a word that means to choke or harass, in this case the person who is doing the worrying would be figuratively "choking" themself, like how I used to feel crippled with anxiety during my attacks. But true fear compels us to take action to protect ourselves. Hope this helps.
posted by timespacewheredoifit at 3:03 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with empath. Talk about this with someone qualified if you can and don't be embarrassed. A lot of people have irrational or catastrophic thoughts and you can learn how to recognise and diminish their negative power.

Are they trying to tell you something? Yes. But not in the fortune-telling way. A therapist will help you tease it out more, but basically these thoughts are highlighting areas of emotional vulnerability.

PS: Ichomp, it's not vain to say you are loved. It is something to be celebrated. Congratulations!
posted by Kerasia at 3:09 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Those are my most prominent fears. They are not that irrational now that I look at them, especiall #1 and 5.

The situations are not irrational, but the fears are. You're stuck in a mindfuck. You fear not being in control. However, it stands to reason that you are no less likely to get into a car crash, or die, if you are fearful. Better yet, think of all the good things that are going your way that you haven't even bothered to fear. Sort of silly, isn't it?

You must get something out of being totally passive. To ruthlessly intellectualize your future, to project and fear your own future actions - this is by its very nature an incapacitating activity. To act as if knowing something before it happens gives you power, when in fact it does not. That thing will happen anyway. To think this way is to feign helplessness. It sounds like you are grappling with the very idea of your own human agency.

Somebody mentioned the phrase depressive realism here recently, and I've thought about it since quite a bit, and I think it accurately describes a part of my personality. In particular, the delusion that depressed thoughts of reality are somehow more accurate. The big news is, everyone dies. So what are you left with? Choosing a life worth living. Or not. It's really a simple change of thought, but maybe not an easy one. I can't really explain to you why some electrons have higher orbits, but they do.

Try to enjoy your life. I find that even short amounts of meditation in the morning and night help guide my day and make me feel more comfortable.

Also, losing youth sucks, but gaining wisdom with age is also pretty cool too.
posted by phaedon at 3:15 AM on January 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

You might find it helpful to check out the idea of acceptance and commitment therapy - part of it is "allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them". There are a bunch of self-help books available on this, like this one. For example, I imagine you could put this into practice by recognizing when you're having this kind of not-so-productive thought process and telling yourself "Yeah, that could happen. Right now there's no way to know whether the thing will happen or not. It's also possible that something really bad will happen that isn't on my list, because life is unpredictable like that. But right now I'm OK."

Also, this might not work for everyone, but if you have a friend or favorite fictional character (or favorite philosopher, etc.) who is really reasonable and kind, you might try calming yourself by imagining a conversation with the person where you tell them your fears and they tell you what they think. It's a way of playing a sneaky trick on your own brain to bring out your self-reassurance and self-compassion skills.
posted by mysh at 3:55 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've trained / training myself to give less, little or no credibility to thoughts that pop into the head in the middle of the night. Whether after waking from a few hours sleep, from a nightmare, or during insomnia, "night thoughts" in particular are more negative, irrational and illogical, than those during the daytime. If some of yours are during the hours of darkness, try and work on techniques to give them short shrift.
posted by Wordshore at 4:09 AM on January 27, 2013

If you are troubled by fears, rational or irrational, your best recourse is to learn how to live in the now rather than in the past or the future. The past is full of regrets and the future full of fears. Enjoy what you are doing right now, savor it, and you will not be thinking of the past or future. I will not pretend to be able to do justice to this concept in a short blog post so I encourage you to Google "living in the now." It may sound a little hokey, or like some eastern mysticism, and perhaps that's true, but you will likely find that it works. If you desire to go beyond free Google found info, Eckhart Tolle's book "The Power of Now" is a quick and enlightening read.
posted by caddis at 4:59 AM on January 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't understand, are you walking around convinced that your sister is pregnant and that the child is going to be born with a problem? Or do you think, "If my sister gets pregnant, it'll probably be messed up." If it's the first, then...I would do therapy, because that does sound therapy worthy to me. If it's the second, I find that totally normal, that's a normal thing to think, in my opinion, everyone worries about things like that. I, too, have worried that the man I end up marrying will hide some fucked aspect of himself, and I worry that I will get in a car accident, and I worry about aging and dying. If you're living in some fantasy world all the time, or constantly obsessed with the fears, then yeah, help is in order. Otherwise, you're normal.
posted by amodelcitizen at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2013

So I would address the fears by saying to myself, "Well, that's a normal thing to worry about, but I can't know the future, so whatever, basically. I can only do my best right now." And if you're obsessing, go for a walk or do some other action that will help you forget.
posted by amodelcitizen at 6:38 AM on January 27, 2013

Here's how I sort fears: is being afraid of something helping me in any way? Is it making me more watchful in a dangerous situation or making me stop and think for a moment before I do something dumb? Fear can be useful--for example--when you're climbing mountains, or when you're driving late at night and you're tired, or when your excitement about a new situation tries to roll over your common sense. But a lot of times, fear doesn't have a purpose. It's just there. It's not helping you make decisions because there are no decisions you can make. No matter how afraid you are of it happenening, you can't do a damned thing about whether your sister's potential child will be healthy or not. So you've got to start pushing back on the fears that either don't take you anywhere, and instead just leave you spinning your wheels and worrying about even more things that you can't control.

I also find that these sorts of fears come with an overwhelmingly helpless sort of feeling. You look at your life and have this horrible sense that your life is fated to become something horrible or broken. And all you can do is be afraid, because like in all the Greek myths, the harder you try to escape the more likely you are to go down the road you're trying to avoid. But that's not really true. You don't always get to choose the outcome, but you do always get to choose how you react to the world. You get to choose what sort of person you want to try to be. And those facts about the world don't change at some random moment in the future. If, for example, you get married, you will not stop being you. Which means that if you've managed to control your loins up until this point in time, that you're not just going to slip on the sidewalk some day and end up in a strange person's bed.
posted by colfax at 6:43 AM on January 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seconding meditation. I had a period of pretty crippling, mostly irrational anxiety and that's what got me through.
posted by amro at 6:57 AM on January 27, 2013

CBT and meds helped a LOT with my intrusive thoughts-- I still have them, but not nearly as often, and I'm now able to tell myself "self, that was a crazy thought and we are going to ignore it."
posted by nonasuch at 7:00 AM on January 27, 2013

I like ACT, as referenced above by mysh. I really liked Things Could Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong (and you'll notice that their cover image is printed upside-down, and the sky didn't fall).

One of the things I like about it is that it reminded me that we are complex evolved creatures, and certain parts of our brain are older than others. More animal. Less rational. Emotional, not so verbal.

I can't tell from your Metafilter history whether you have any pets or are around any babies. But if so, you will realise that you already have the tools you need to deal with this. For example, our loveably fat cat is terrified of the vacuum and always hides behind the curtain when it's on. Is this rational? No. Will any amount of vacuuming convince him of this? No. It is what it is. When there is a loud noise, we need to find a way to make it quieter and give him time to come out of his hiding place. Same with babies — take them out of the loud room, rock them, soothe them. No interrogations, no guilt, no persuasive arguments.

So, what the heck does this have to do with your irrational fears? Basically the part of your brain that is obsessing on them is scared in the same way my stupid cat is scared. It can't be convinced of the irrationality, all it knows is the fear. And it needs to be soothed. And hey, our cat is a moron, but we love him to bits, so we soothe him.

When I get stressed, there are a few irrational fears that pop to the surface, every time:

1. "Eventually, I'm going to commit suicide. That's going to suck."
2. When going down stairs, immediate 2-second video in my brain of falling down those stairs and breaking my neck. When crossing the street, BAM! the car I didn't see just plowed into me. On a balcony? Just fell off. Should I take an elevator? Bad Things Lurking Ahead.
3. "Oh my god, I'm super-handicapped and no one has the heart to tell me. I'm so handicapped that I don't even know it. They're just being nice to me out of pity."

ACT has taught me to react in the following ways:
Oh, brain, you are stressed right now, aren't you? Do you need something to eat? We should make sure to get you some introvert time soon, things have been too busy lately for you. Yes, that is a scary thought! I can feel how scary that is! Let's just feel that for a minute and not try to fix it. Yes, I see, oh that is awful, I understand. What do you need? No, it's okay, you're allowed to be here, there's room for you here even with all the ACK OMG SCARY! going on.
Sometimes your brain needs to be heard, not fixed. I'm not talking about letting yourself ruminate on ever-worsening scenarios, but hearing the emotion underneath. Try not running away from those scary emotions. Sometimes your brain is throwing random shit at you in an effort to get your attention, and your attention to the emotion helps to calm it down. Sometimes avoiding that call makes your brain panic more.

I am generally not one for visualizations because I am kind of snotty about woo-tastic stuff, but I did try some of them in Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong and was surprised how helpful they were. With my "eventually I will definitely commit suicide" thought, they asked me to just sit with that thought, make room for it, ask it to come in and get comfortable, picture it, listen to it for a while, and then ask it, "What do you need?" And what do you know? It somehow came back right away with "I need to know you'll take care of me." And since then, when that horrible thought pops up, I can come back with "It's okay, I'm here keeping an eye out for you," and it eases. It's really stunning.

CBT works for lots of people too, but it wasn't a good fit for me, so don't lose heart if you try something and it doesn't help for long. Medication also helped for a while, and really showed me that these thoughts are extra thoughts. Now that I'm off medication they pop up every once in a while and I take them as a signal that I am stressed, kind of like realising you're overtired because you're yawning a lot.
posted by heatherann at 7:52 AM on January 27, 2013 [21 favorites]

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