Help me overcome my fears
November 13, 2006 2:20 PM   Subscribe

How can I stop being so scared?

I feel really stupid even asking this question, but here goes. As I get older, I find myself more and more being scared of totally irrational things. For example, the thought of being alone in the woods terrifies me, as does sleeping in the woods. While this probably stems partially from the “normal” fears of bears, getting lost, etc., what terrifies me is the thought of psycho killers/homicidal maniacs waiting in the woods to kill me. Another example: it’s really difficult for me to be alone at night in homes (I live in an apartment, which isn’t nearly as scary for me), because every noise I hear or shadow I see leads me to believe that someone or something is in the home. I am generally a completely rational and collected person, but I can somehow convince myself that every little creak or rattle is a crazy killer waiting for me in the basement. Basically, my brain creates scary/creepy scenarios, and I’m apparently unable to separate what could happen from what actually might happen.

Why is this important? Well, it’s starting to affect my life. I can’t go camping with friends because just the thought of it strikes fear in my heart. It’s very difficult for me to spend time alone at night at my significant other’s house, and I definitely can’t go into the basement. I’d like to own a home someday, but the thought of someone being able to break in scares me to death.

So I guess I’m looking for personal anecdotes or advice that anyone can offer. It’s not so bad that I think I need a therapist at this point (it doesn’t have a huge impact on my life), but I’d like to be able to think less, I guess. How do you address and/or deal with your fears (not necessarily just the ones I have)?
posted by elquien to Human Relations (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Be active. Continue doing everything you've ever done, and expand, if possible. I think most people get more scared, more socially conservative, and more insular with age. It might have to do with the fact that you feel like you have more to lose, or the knowledge of what you could lose if something did happen.

Instead, concentrate on what you're going to miss if you're focused on the negative instead of realizing the opportunities and experiences you have yet to encounter.

Think that a creak is a killer in the basement? Yell, ask if there's someone down there, run down the stairs. If you're sitting there believing it's a paranoid fantasy, it likely is. Go camping! There's a difference between caution and paranoia and you're creeping over the line because you're afraid of the unknown. Make it known or realize that most of life will always be unknown to you and it's better to try experiences than to burrow into your own world.
posted by mikeh at 2:29 PM on November 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's too early to see a therapist. These are irrational fears and even if they aren't life-altering phobias yet (although you yourself said they are "starting to affect my life"), it seems like that's the direction they're headed.
posted by 10ch at 2:29 PM on November 13, 2006

I second 10ch.

Looks like you can you some professional help.

To me life is full of risks.

I live in an earthquake country and I could die any minute without achieving many of my life goals.

Yet I have no regrets if I get hit by a car after typing these answers.

What I needed was an attitude that I will not have any regrets if I die before my time.

And the only way that can happen is if I am living a life that is true to the self, rather than a life based on others' terms. I rejected definition of success as defined by others and came up with my own definition of success and what is important to me.

And along the way I found the inner strength I never thought I had and this gave me higher self confidence, respect, discipline, and esteem and inner peace.

The price is loneliness but it is also liberating to the soul.

I hope this helps.
posted by cluelessguru at 2:43 PM on November 13, 2006 [2 favorites]

I just want to say first that you aren't alone. I've shared many, if not most of these feelings. Have courage that it can get better!

The first thing that I did when I anxiety started to effect my life was go to my doctor She put me on a very mild dose of Zoloft for anxiety. Now, this sounds drastic, and maybe it was, but it made a major difference for me. As a single woman in a shabby apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood, perhaps I should have been on edge, but at least I wasn't up all night listening for creaking noises on my patio.

I don't know if I would necessarily recommend going on medication, but if your anxiety gets worse, perhaps talk to your doctor about it. I would never have guessed that I would have been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, but when I look back, I have had it to some degree all my life.

Honestly, the best things you can do are seeing a therapist and getting more involved in programs like neighborhood watches, etc. Guidance, education and DOING something instead of waiting for something bad to happen to you are all good things.

And I know that medication and seeing a therapist both have stigmas, but ask yourself if you really give a damn about all that if those things mean that you can feel better and do things you want to camping.

Best of luck!
posted by bristolcat at 2:48 PM on November 13, 2006

Also, my therapist is having me read this book (Don't Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks by R. Reid Wilson). You might find something of use in it!
posted by bristolcat at 2:51 PM on November 13, 2006

Just a thought-do you make a habit of going to scary movies or reading scary novels or dwelling on what is in the newspaper?

I find I personally do much better by monitoring what I read, see and hear. Being bipolar, I have to because if I get upset too much I can get sick.

If not, then you may very well want to get some preemptive help before it gets to the point of making your life difficult.
posted by konolia at 3:04 PM on November 13, 2006

I would also try to stay away from watching local news broadcasts, scary movies, crime procedurals, that kind of thing. It's really easy to start thinking that life is full of psychos and crap when you're surrounded by a bunch of that crap. Deliberately stick to reading/watching things that are not scary or thrillerish.

I also encourage the idea of a therapist, if it gets to the point where it affects your life (which it is, if you're not doing things you normally would), but I am a total hypocrite, because I have wicked bad social anxiety which keeps me from going to a therapist.

Maybe take some self-defense classes to increase your confidence?

Also, the odds of you being murdered by some random psycho are pretty fucking low.

A lot of times when I feel anxious or afraid, it's not actually the imagined crazy people or what have you that are making me afraid, but a sense of being alone, or not having control of a situation, or something far more basic, and I just choose to express that anxiety via imagining monsters in the closet, if you will.

I find that giving myself a little additional control in a situation often alleviates my fear - maybe taking some pepper spray with me camping, or investigating a sound that I know logically is nothing armed with a baseball bat (hey, who's going to make fun of me if I'm by myself).

Distracting myself also is a almost-always effective way to stop feeling afraid.
posted by mckenney at 3:09 PM on November 13, 2006

It sounds like you should spend some time getting in touch with your subconscious mind. As you explain it, when you are alone or in nature, (i.e., your conscious mind doesn't have people or machines to distract it), fears emerge. These fears can be images and feelings from your subconscious mind that are drowned out by your everyday life, but which you are surprised to find when you are alone. And you may wonder, "Where is this stuff coming from?" This is similar to what happens with a Rohrschach test: people will project their semi-conscious images onto abstract, organic shapes, and be taken aback.

While man-made shapes usually make sense to us and can be combined with a word, (i.e. "lamp") organic shapes are a mirror for your unconscious mind. The human mind seeks out patterns continuously, and by examining the patterns a person sees in an abstract image (or organic shapes), we can get a glimpse into that person's psyche. While one person might see psycho-killers crouched in the underbrush , another might see helpful fairies, or the shape of buildings.

I believe that the psycho killers you mention exist primarily in your mind. Of course, there are psycho killers in the world, but they surely inhabit suburban houses as much as desolate woods. Why, then are you only afraid of meeting them in the woods? I suggest that it's because in the forest your conscious mind quiets and you can pay attention to your ongoing inner world. These fears you experience may not be inherently frightening, but may seem scary because you are not acquainted with them.

A good way to acquaint yourself with these feelings would be to pay attention to your dreams. There's a good book called Inner Work that explains how to monitor and analyze your dreams. I mention this because the better you get to know your psyche through your dreams, the less frightening it will be to you when you encounter it in quiet moments. Good luck!
posted by pantufla at 3:30 PM on November 13, 2006

Well, I was fearing specific situations to the point where life started to shut down. Personal circumstances had changed, and I underestimated the impact that had. One day, my amygdala went into overdrive and for three months it stayed there. I was in a constant state of anxiety, and when getting to bed at night, I had panic attacks. Exercise was helpful, on two counts - it made me somewhat too tired to worry and it got me out of the limits I was imposing on myself. I also started taking 5-HTP with vitamin B6, abstained from alcohol, switched to decaf.
Without doubt, getting on an exercise and activity program was the most beneficial. If you go for therapy, I suggest you give EMDR at least the benefit of a doubt as part of a cognitive behavioral therapy regime, but that's if you try the above and still have difficulties.
Keep working on this - not to just 'conquer your fears', but to explore every option to find comfort, happiness and a sense of well-being. If you keep at it, that creak won't have anything behind it. If you have tried everything and still can't make headway, perhaps you might need medication on top of therapy, but not medication by itself. Been there etc. Good luck.
PS - the specific situations were sleeping alone and driving over bridges. They still bother me occasionally but, hey, I function.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:00 PM on November 13, 2006

I used to have the same problems - fearing that killers were after me. After a lot of introspection I disovered that I was the most fearful after watching "Law & Order" or crime specials on TV. It seemed odd that TV shows could freak my adult self out the same way they scare little kids, but it's true. Try to limit your violence might help.

Also, on the nights when my husband is away I've found that having my cats around helps a lot. Whenever I hear a strange creak or thump, I look at them. If their ears are up, I know something's wrong. If they're snoozing, I know it's fine. Maybe getting a pet would help you feel more secure.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:13 PM on November 13, 2006

I think the above advice is generally great, especially about staying away from true crime dramas, etc. Anxiety (and anxiety disorders. which you may have a touch of) start peaking as you get older, usually near 30. As far as scary movies/etc go, I find that unrealistic horror films (e.g., zombie flicks, aliens, etc) actually provide a healthy outlet for my fears. Same goes for scary rides at amusement parks -- a few rides on really terrifying coasters makes me feel I'm 18 again and can conquer the world.

Also, never underestimate the power of conscious breathing when you're feeling anxious. It may take awhile to get the hang of it, but it's helped me tremendously and can sometimes stop a panic attack in its tracks. I do 4 counts inhale, 4 counts holding, 8 counts exhaling. Repeat, focusing on the process of breathing, imagining the breath going down into the lower belly. Doesn't hurt to think about pleasant things while doing this, either -- I often think of a sunset on a beach. YMMV, but works like a charm for me.
posted by treepour at 4:40 PM on November 13, 2006

christinetheslp has a great idea with the cats -- they tend to have a better perception for that kind of thing, and the source of the cats (pound, freebie giver, etc) may be able to tell you which of the cats they have to give are the constantly alert kind. We've had a few that will perk up at the slightest sound and always check around the corner when the doorbell rings. You might find a little solace in that at least knowing you're not alone in your wariness.

I can't watch any horror movies or I'll get so severely freaked out by pretty much everything that I've quit watching them altogether unless it is broad daylight and something silly like Barney is available to watch quickly thereafter.

Instead of just wondering, know. Find out through your rummagings around the house why the house creaks. If it is changing seasons, houses naturally shift (with doors becoming harder to close sometimes), making creaks in the wood. If something gives you the impression there is someone in the house, and once you've determined there isn't, explore what exactly clued you into that idea (such as a coat falling off the hanger, perhaps) and find a new way to hang your coat or repair the hanger. I understand sometimes the most rational explanation doesn't dim the "true because I feel it" sensation, but coming up with tons more possibilities than always jumping to "serial killers" tends to dilute the confidence that the scary choice is the most likely.
posted by vanoakenfold at 4:48 PM on November 13, 2006

Thirding the cats suggestion (or a dog). Having something to help 'watch' will ease you through the various bumps and creaks and eventually by sheer familiarity, they become mundane and harmless.
posted by Rubber Soul at 4:57 PM on November 13, 2006

Also, this sounds counterintuitive, but some advice in this askmefi thread got me to try the following:

When I start feeling anxious about x, simply say to myself, "okay, yes, it's possible -- x might happen." Weirdly, this sometimes makes the anxiety go away. My theory is that anxiety is, at core, anxiety about anxiety, a sort of empty, content-less feedback loop that latches on, leech-like, to one's fears -- i.e., one is more afraid of having the scary thought than the thing the scary thought is about. It doesn't seem this way, of course, but sometimes it seems to work that way. Anxiety is quite the trickster.
posted by treepour at 4:57 PM on November 13, 2006

As a kid, I was really skittish about stuff like that, but as the older brother, was ocassionally left home alone with my younger sister. I got over these feelings by confronting the irrational fears. Okay, I'm freaked out about the back basement/laundry room? Go downstairs, turn the lights on, and walk through the laundry room, taking note that hey-there's nobody there.

By all means distinguish this sort of fear-the irrational, from the rational. It's one thing to fear there is someone in your house for no reason at all, or just from the creaks of an old house settling. That's quite different from hearing a door opening, or hearing a window breaking, which would justifiably worry someone. If you're honestly concerned, grab something heavy and go investigate, or call the cops, if you really think someone has broken into your home.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 5:16 PM on November 13, 2006

I have noticed that, as people become more secure in their persons, property, careers, they spend more and more time worrying over increasingly trivial matters. It's as if, unchallenged by more real fear, their minds look for something else of which to be frightened.

Go and do something that might actually be scary. You know, prowling around in the woods at 3 a.m., letting various startled forms of wildlife spook you. Drive through a bad part of town.
posted by adipocere at 5:29 PM on November 13, 2006

turn on the radio when you're at your SO's house. keep it on all night.

when my husband goes out of town I keep NPR on constantly. otherwise i focus on all the little noises and really freak myself out.
posted by macinchik at 6:20 PM on November 13, 2006

This cat advice is near-crazy. If you get a cat which is fidgety, hard-to-read, or possibly from an abused home (often you can't tell these things by looking at an animal), it's behavior will make you more paranoid, especially when it jumps at something/nothing in the dark. Plus you'll be relying on an animal, which you can't have with you everywhere.
posted by fake at 6:48 PM on November 13, 2006

Actually, having cats has always helped me. I can rationalize noises in two ways: If the cats are still sleeping soundly or looking otherwise relaxed, I assume it's not an intruder or else they'd be on the alert. If they're not within my range of sight (say, another room), I just chalk the noise up to them! See how that works? ;)

I'm the same way when alone in a house, but in my own apartment back some years ago, I was perfectly fine. Houses -- especially older ones -- can be creepy!

Camping, well... I'd be nervous about psychos, too. Then again, I'm totally neurotic these days... heh.
posted by Teevee's Bella at 8:57 PM on November 13, 2006

In addition to the other suggestions, maybe a good self defense class would help you out a little bit? At the very least it might be good cardio.
posted by drstein at 9:00 PM on November 13, 2006

Proactive steps are key. Other people have suggested getting involved in neighborhood watches or self-defense classes. I'll add: get to know your neighbors as much as possible. Feeling like there are friends all around you is comforting, and you actually are safer when you know who belongs and when your neighbors know what's normal for your apt/house. In addition to not reading/watching creepy news, actively seek out nighttime reading that is comforting, whether escapist or grounding. If you start getting scared, exercise a bit. You'll get some endorphins and will feel stronger and more confident.
posted by hippugeek at 9:45 PM on November 13, 2006

I can just see Anna and the King...

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
I'm afraid.

While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows
I'm afraid.

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!

I whistle a happy tune
And ev'ry single time
The happiness in the tune
Convinces me that I'm not afraid.

Make believe you're brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are

You may be as brave
As you make believe you are

Seriously, though... I overcome my fears (and I have many and they seem to increase with age) depending on the type of fear. Some are what - in calmer moments - I deem irrational fears. Those I try to tackle in two ways - I try to educate myself about the real level of risk, and I try to combat the fear through breathing and something singing (if I'm alone) or speaking to other people, or distracting myself. Others - even in calm moments - I deem genuine risks, and those I tackle by minimizing the risk.

For example, after a couple of car accidents, I'm afraid of driving in inclement weather. I have dealt with that fear by taking a defensive driving class, and - seriously - by turning up rock music and singing really loudly. Or breathing deeply if necessary.

I'm afraid of flying these days after some bad flights, and I combat that fear by drinking a glass of wine or two before the flight, by learning about flight safety and what turbulence means, and by breathing deeply when necessary.

When I'm in a creaky house and am scared of murderers, I tend to tell myself it's highly unlikely there really is a murderer there, and I go looking in all the places I'm afraid of. That usually helps.

I'm afraid of certain alleys near my house late at night, and since it's a dangerous area, I deal with that fear by not going into those areas late at night alone. In that case, I take cabs or walk with other people.
posted by Amizu at 7:10 AM on November 14, 2006

Quit TV, especially the news.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 8:49 AM on November 14, 2006

Gradual desenitization. Afraid to be alone in the woods? Find some woods with people nearby (state park?), and venture into the woods just a little bit. When you get scared, walk just a tiny bit farther.

Can you tell your friends you are scared to go camping, and get them to help you go do it with them anyway?

Afraid to be alone in the house? Get your SO in the basement with you, just for a little while. Get your SO to leave you home alone for just a little bit, then gradually increase.

When the fear comes, can you talk yourself out of it? Do some research (if you think it would be helpful, don't do it if it will scare you more!) ~ I know you know this, but I'm pretty sure that statistically speaking there aren't many psycho killers lurking.

Consider that maybe you are afraid of something else, and that fear or anxiety is manifesting itself in this form.
posted by KAS at 9:45 AM on November 14, 2006

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