By Dr. Samantha Rodman
The hallmark of many anxiety disorders is the presence of irrational fears. Some people who suffer from anxiety disorders know that their fears are irrational, and some don’t.
Here are some examples, and the disorders they might be associated with.
- I will have a panic attack while driving and have a car accident and die (panic disorder with agoraphobia)
- If I ask that girl on a date, she will laugh right in my face and I will feel so humiliated that I will never recover (social phobia)
- That dog is going to attack me! (specific phobia in regards to dogs)
- My partner looks tired, I think they have cancer (generalized anxiety)
As you can see, fear, and even terror in the face of certain outcomes, can keep people trapped in an endless cycle of anxiety. Let’s look at the behavioral consequences of each of these fears:
- This person ends up never driving, which means they have to quit their job and stop socializing entirely, resulting in major depression
- This person never asks anyone out on dates, and years pass during which they become increasingly anxious, isolated, and depressed
- Eventually, this person may also stop leaving the house, because anywhere they go, a dog may be there and may attack them
- The person harasses their partner endlessly to get medical testing done, frustrating and alienating them.
Irrational thoughts are insidious and harmful. Thankfully, there is one way to short circuit these thoughts so they don’t control your life, but it is not easy. The best possible way to stop these thoughts in their tracks is to CHALLENGE them, both cognitively and behaviorally (hint: this is why it’s called cognitive behavioral therapy!).
How to Challenge Irrational Fears
Challenging irrational fears cognitively involves thinking out what would happen if these thoughts came to fruition, as well as assessing the real-world likelihood of the feared outcomes.
Let’s take the first example. This person fears leaving the house, because their history of panic attacks makes them fear driving. With a therapist, or on their own, it would be useful for them to think about how likely it is to completely lose control while driving to the point that they wouldn’t even be able to pull over onto the side (very unlikely for a danger-focused anxious person).
In this case, it would be beneficial to learn more about the fight or flight response in humans, and figure out that if they were actually in a super dangerous situation, their body would be very unlikely to choose that moment to have a panic attack. This is a cognitive approach to this fear, and often just thinking through these issues can be extremely helpful in moderating the fear response.
Face Your Fears Directly
Challenging irrational fears behaviorally involves actually trying out the feared behavior and seeing what happens. As you can imagine, this can be much more terrifying than just cognitively challenging the fear. In our car example, this person would have to actually get into the car and drive somewhere. If they in fact had a panic attack, they would pull to the side of the road and wait out the panic attack and then drive. Even though this would be terribly stressful, this person would likely feel a sense of mastery and accomplishment from confronting their worst fear, the fear of losing control and having a car accident due to a panic attack.
Taking the Next Steps
If you suffer from irrational fears, or even fears that you think are rational but that others do not, you have nothing to lose from trying cognitive behavioral therapy, which builds on the techniques that I outlined here. A life constricted by fears can make you feel awful and hopeless. Actively confronting your fears, via changing your thoughts and your behaviors, can give you back the life that you deserve!
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