Learning Points: Facing our fears is the best way to conquer anxieties

FEAR is one of the most significant and important survival mechanisms we have as mammals, says Richard Hogan.

It is the feeling induced by a perceived danger or threat, it can even change how the brain and organs function. It ignites a primordial response, without which, over millennia, we would not have known what to run away from — which would have certainly meant an early demise for so many of us.

Because, as we know, there are so many dangers out there and if we were simply walking around like the poor naïve gazelle in any Attenborough clip our hour on the stage would be exactly that, an hour and then complete destruction. 

So the evolution of the limbic system was an important one for our longevity. Within the limbic system are two almond shaped sections of nervous tissue known as the amygdalae. And it is this tissue you have to thank for helping you to stay alive. Because it is the amygdala that interprets external stimuli and tells the body it needs to escape.

However, it is also this nervous tissue that you have to blame for your sweaty palms, increased heartbeat and shallow breathing when you have to give a talk in public or when you are walking into work and you feel that overwhelming sudden urge to run away. That sensation is your amygdala becoming stimulated and excitedly sending impulses throughout your body. 

So, we are hardwired to respond to negative and positive external stimuli. I have been struck over the years with the number of teenagers coming to me because of anxiety. They often describe a complete paralysis due to the presence of fear and anxiety in their life. This is something I write a considerable amount about because it is probably the most recurring issue I meet in my clinic on a daily basis. Parents and teenagers really need help managing this physiological response to a perceived threat.

And because the threat isn’t as immediate as a woolly mammoth charging at you, we are often left very confused as to why the anxiety is present in the first place. But just because you can’t see the threat doesn’t mean that your brain isn’t correctly interpreting the presence of something menacing. And in my experience that menacing presence is often the lack of human connection or the maladaptive response to separation.

When you look at anxiety among teenagers it seems like we are in the middle of an epidemic with the disorder. As I have said, it is by far the most recurring issue I deal with on a daily basis in my clinic. And this time of year can be particularly difficult for teenagers with that giant stressor of state exams looming.

One of the first things I say to an adolescent in my clinic looking for help is: ‘Well, you’re lucky — at least the thing you are struggling with won’t kill you.’ This generally takes them by surprise but there is method in that sentence. One of the most powerful tools anxiety has got in its arsenal is the fear that it will come back. 

This is generally what keeps us anxious. You’ve been out at a lovely event and out of nowhere a panic attack has struck, now you fear going anywhere. That attack has really shaken your confidence because now you know it can happen at any time, so you’re living in fear now. And this is anxiety’s best friend. So an important thing to remember is a panic attack will not kill you. It is uncomfortable for sure, not life-threatening.

And I often say to a young adult, what are the chairs in school like, uncomfortable right? Do you spend your weekends dreading the week ahead because you will be forced to sit in those awful uncomfortable plastic chairs? No. Well, a panic attack generally lasts for 10 to 20 minutes and then is gone. 

Your body will normalise and the feelings will dissipate. You have to sit in those seats for hours on end each day, so why do you fear something that is so transient and non-fatal? Those chairs are far worse for your health than a little panic. The levity in a conversation like this can really take the pressure off the fear of anxiety returning. We have to become comfortable in discomfort so that we can take all the power out of anxiety.

AFTER all, we need it to survive. And why are teenagers receiving the message that they should never feel discomfort? We can’t get rid of anxiety unless we cut out or limbic system. I often hear parents talking to their children about conquering fear as if it is an invading army. 

‘We will beat this’ or ‘breath, just breath’ advice like this ensures anxiety’s presence because they are telling their children they should be afraid and that is not a desirable way to think about the issue. We need anxiety to survive, we must become unafraid of it if we want to live harmoniously with it. If we are constantly running from it we will spend our lives in fear. 

We must turn to face it, so that we can see it and when we see it for what it is, it will be diminished and you will no longer experience it as a terrifying invading malevolent presence. When this happens it can actually become a source of power.

Next week I will discuss why it is so prevalent today among teenagers and how you can support your child suffering with it.

Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three. If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie

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