What Maintains Irrational Fears?
1. Avoiding What We Fear:
Avoiding objects or situations that make us uncomfortable or produce fear is a natural human instinct, but it can maintain our fears and make them more severe and pervasive. By avoiding what we fear, we reinforce the idea that the object or situation is actually dangerous, even if the fear is irrational or out of proportion to the actual danger posed. This can increase our fear of the object or situation, and can increase the likelihood that we will avoid it in the future since our minds learn that avoidance gets rid of our fear.
The psychology behind this is based on classical and operant conditioning principles. To read more about this, click here.
2. Negative Self-Perception Bias
In the case of interpersonal/social or performance-based fears, biased self-perception can maintain these fears and make them more severe. Biased self-perception refers to the tendency to judge ourselves more negatively than others would judge us. This can involve judging our looks, our performance in our work or in public, or even what we say to other people. For example, a fear of speaking in public may be made worse by the belief that you will make a fool of yourself, because you judge yourself negatively and assume that others also will. This negative self-bias contributes to social anxiety and fears since many people do not recognize that this type of thought is irrational, and take it as fact rather than fiction.
To learn more about negative self-perception biases, click here.
3. Negative Memory Bias
Most people have a negative memory bias, meaning that we are more likely to recall negative events such as embarrassing moments or fearful encounters than mildly positive or neutral events. When we are thinking about doing some activity, we remember more negative experiences associated with that activity than positive ones. This can drive fear and anxiety, because we believe that future experiences will also be negative, even if we have more positive or neutral experiences than we remember.
To learn more about negative memory bias, click here.
Sometimes, negative thoughts lead to more negative thoughts, and a snowball effect can occur that leads to thinking of the worst case scenario. This catastrophizing can lead to increased fear and anxiety, which maintains our irrational fears because we believe the worst case scenario will happen, even if that is highly improbable.
How Can We Eliminate Irrational Fears?
1. Face What We Fear
The best way to break the cycle of irrational fears and worries is to face them, since avoidance only strengthens the fear. Try to keep facing activities and objects even if they scare you a bit. An effective strategy to do this is to list feared objects or situations, and slowly expose yourself to them in an order from least scary to most scary if it is safe to do so. You can either expose yourself to the actual object or situation in real life, or you can imagine that you are facing the object or situation. Focus on taking slow, deep breaths and trying to relax while you're exposing yourself to your fears to decrease anxiety. It is best to practice this method with a counsellor or other clinician if your fears are severe. Importantly, do not try to expose yourself to situations or objects that are actually dangerous.
This method is based on the principles of systematic desensitization therapy. To learn more about this, click here.
2. Show Kindness Towards Your Fear
Recognize that it is natural to have feelings of fear, and know that having fears is something that makes you human. Recognizing and acknowledging your fears can help you overcome them.
3. Cognitive Restructuring
Try to notice your patterns of thought when you feel fear, and if possible, record the thoughts that you are having. Next, try to evaluate whether they are logically rational or not. Try to be patient and to not to worry if you're finding this difficult, since irrational thoughts can sometimes be unconscious or difficult to recognize. When you record your thoughts, go through them and try to identify the ones that include exaggerated or irrational thought patterns, called cognitive distortions. To find a list of common cognitive distortions for you to compare your thoughts to, click here. Finally, try to rewrite these thoughts about fear with a more rational and positive outlook. You do not have to replace all negative or fearful thoughts with positive ones, since it is perfectly normal to have negative thoughts. However, the goal is to recognize cognitive distortions and to teach your brain to think through these thoughts instead of immediately accepting them as facts.
To learn more about cognitive distortions and cognitive restructuring, click here.
4. Introduce Other Possibilities Instead of the Worst Case Scenario
When we experience fear, we often think of the worst case scenario and worry about it happening. It can be helpful to identify the worst case scenario, and think of other outcomes that are less severe and much more probable. By recognizing that there are other possibilities that are more probable, we can avoid catastrophizing (automatically thinking about the worst case scenario and believing that it will occur), which is very helpful in eliminating irrational fears.
5. Remember Positive Experiences
Because we have a tendency to recall negative experiences better than mildly positive or neutral experiences, it can be helpful to try to remember positive experiences you have had when you are thinking of a negative experience involving some feared object or situation. This can teach our mind that not every experience involving our fears has been negative, and that a positive experience is possible in the future.