When we do something over & over, consciously or not, it becomes habit. Believe it or not, a fear reaction can become habit – when we react with fear to certain situations, our minds and bodies become trained to respond with fear whenever that situation arises.
I learned this oh-so-first-hand recently. For those of you who follow our blog, you may remember a post from last winter where I detailed our journey with our daughter, Natalie, through the fear of undiagnosed sickness.
Talk about generating a fear response! We were living in fear for months – always on edge, wondering when the next issue would arise. Fear became second-nature as her health continued to decline, with no solution in sight.
We did finally discover the issue and were able to address it. As a doctor said to me this summer, “She’s STRONG – in every way.” And she is. The physical problems are gone. But there are still hidden emotional issues that must be addressed.
This really hit home a few months ago. While I knew the fear was still there, I didn’t understand just how strong the chain was.
Natalie’s serious issues started as the 2013 marching band season started. While we knew there were problems, we didn’t know how grave they were until the first competition of the season, when we received a phone call telling us she’d been taken to the ER.
This year’s band season started very differently: Natalie had been healthy for months, stronger than she’d ever been. But that rational knowledge could not satiate the emotional fear response that was embedded so deeply. And so arrived the first competition of the season…
We’re in the car; the phone rings. I don’t recognize the number. With trepidation, I answer. “Hi, it’s —–“ – the mother of one of the band’s drum majors! At that point, I understood with all my being what it means to feel your heart stop.
Immediately, visions of Natalie on the ground, in the ER, all the same problems starting again, flooded my vision. I was back a year earlier, reliving that dreadful moment when we accepted we had something critical on our hands.
The mother continued, “I wanted to ask you about —-.” Oh. Not Natalie. In fact, the mom wasn’t even at the competition. Not Natalie. I couldn’t get my bearings. Fear was in control.
At that point, I realized just how “trained” my body and emotions were to be expecting the worst. Fear was there, just under the surface, waiting.
This is a pretty extreme example of what can happen to us when our bodies are put in fear mode over and over. Any situation that elicits any level of fear, if it happens over and over, can create this same automatic response.
For instance: I have a friend who is afraid to drive long distances. She’s OK driving around town; but if she is asked to go out of town, she panics. Just the thought of a longer trip triggers her fear response. This started when she was young, for no apparent reason: nothing had ever happened that would scare her; no flat tire, or engine trouble. But the few times she has driven on a long trip, she has done so in a fearful state – and the deeper the fear has become rooted, until now it prevents her even from considering driving out of town.
I’m sure you can think of many instances where your friends or family are ruled by fear; but can you find them in yourself? That’s very tricky. Even in my extreme situation, it took months to realize how much fear was ruling me… so think how much harder it is to realize when the fear is not so drastic, and perhaps has become second-nature.
But even fears that don’t seem to be disruptive, that simply prevent you from doing small things, can hold you back from accomplishing what you’d like in your life.
The good news is that, just as with any fear response, you can learn to overcome a fear habit. The first step, of course, is recognizing the issue, and recognizing how embedded it is. Some issues are not that deep and can be handled quickly; others have been around a long time and will need to be chipped away. And of course, the sooner you can identify the issue and address it, the less likely it is to become a habit and the more easily it will be to eliminate.