Wednesday, April 11, 2012

You weren't born with that

We are only born with two fears. Only two of them have actually been embedded in our DNA. They are there for survival.

The fear of falling.

The fear of loud noises.

Every other fear you have has been learned.

Gonna' say it one more time.

 Every other fear you have has been learned.

Which means you can also un-learn it.

So, there.

When we lived in northern Oklahoma, we discovered our home was infested with brown recluse spiders.  I immediately went into full-on freak out mode.  The exterminator said we probably had a nest of them in the basement or somewhere.  He said they were very common, and thankfully (THANKFULLY?!?) they were called "recluse" for a reason.  He was making it clear that he would spray, but it would probably do very, very little to alleviate the problem completely. 

I was pretty sure I was going to die.  Not from the spiders, but just from hearing and absorbing that information.  Just. die.

I moved to the country two and a half years ago.  When we arrived, I had two very large fears within myself.  Snakes and scorpions (you can see where I'm going with this, right?).  This week I took the following pictures in my yard.

This would be a snake.

This would be a scorpion.

Meet our neighbors, Mr. Rat Snake (about five feet long) and Mrs. Texas Scorpion (approximately two inches long).  I don't know why I felt the need to give you their sizes.  I guess I didn't want any of you thinking that we had mammoth scorpions, or that was some cute little garter snake. 

Yet, in taking the pictures, I was able to zoom in and stay near both of these guys without fear.  I was able to stare down the snake and determine it was our friend.  I sleep at night, knowing these critters are all around our house.  I left our last home, still finding the occasional brown recluse spider and just tossing it outside.  No, really!

If I can un-learn those fears, I can un-learn the others.  I wasn't born with a fear of snakes, scorpions and spiders. Some of my kids weren't born with the fear of rejection or abandonment.  I wasn't born with the fear of being a bad mom.  I wasn't born with the fear of failure.  I wasn't even born with my emetophobia! These were all learned along the way.

So, how on earth does one go from recurring snake nightmares to following one around in the yard to get a good shot for Instagram?

Here are some things that have worked for me over the years:

1.  Researching the heck out of it.  Learn all about your fears.  Did you know that brown recluse spiders are the most common house spider in Kansas (November 2002 issue of the Journal of Medical Entomology)?  Yup.  People live around them all the time.  Last time I checked, they weren't killing people in droves.  And severe reactions are much more rare than you would think.  And they really are reclusive.  They don't care for people.  So, give them fair warning before shoving your foot inside a shoe on top of them.  Same with scorpions.  They don't want to sting us unless they think we're trying to pummel them.  We can take normal precautions.  For those of us with life-threatening allergic reactions, we can be prepared and always have our epi-pens available.  We can learn what snakes are venomous and what snakes are of zero threat to us.  We can know where to seek medical attention in the very rare case that it is needed.

This works for all your fears.  Are you living in jealousy or fear of rejection?  Study it.  Research it.  Learn where it came from (have a therapist guide you through this).  Understand the "why" underneath your emotions.  Know your enemy.  It may not be as threatening as you think.

2.  Expose yourself to it.  We tend to avoid things that cause us to think about our fears.  Yeah.  Don't do that.  Allow yourself little bits of exposure.  And if you're an emetophobe, just have five kids and a husband who catch every stomach bug that ever crosses their paths.  If you're afraid of snakes and scorpions, move to the country.  Free therapy! 

3.  Think all the way through the worst-case scenario.  You'll be shocked at how even the very worst things in life are actually still very manageable.  Many times we sit with a feeling of helplessness.  When we force ourselves to speak of our fears and follow them through to fruition, verbally, we find that they don't actually have the same power that we have been giving them.  Try it.  Even the most horrible things have room for exaggeration in our heads. 

4.  Visualize.  Sit and think about being in your fearful situation and ... surviving.  Making choices.  Moving forward.  Having a positive outcome.  Our brains created this fear through our experiences.  We have the power to turn it off and/or normalize it. 

It takes longer to un-learn a fear than it does for the trauma to initially trigger it (see the study on mice in the October 2003 American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Process).  I didn't go chasing critters around the field with a camera right after we moved out here.  Perhaps it was my early Google searches of "How to make scorpions die, die, DIE!!" which actually led me to a few more level-headed bits of information.  The point is:  I got there.  I kept with it.  I could either learn to live with what life handed me, or I could build a platform with electrical shock wire in my bedroom on which to spend the rest of my days.

Not sure you have any major fears?  Think about what really makes you mad.  What makes your blood boil?  Many times we cover up deeply rooted fears with "mad" or "angry."  Perhaps you deliberately avoid something because it starts to fuel fear. 

Instead of covering it up or avoiding it, maybe you could try ... just for five minutes ... staring that snake in the face from a safe distance.


Annie said...

I am pretty sure that Bruce Perry wrote in "Born for Love" that we also have a natural fear of blood, and disfigurement. That makes sense, since the sight of blood on another person might well announce the presence of danger.

I figure that is why I immediately recoil at facial piercings - even though I don't mentally think they are "wrong" or anything, I just can't keep from having my stomach turn, at first glance.

I definitely have a fear of spiders. I'll avoid Oklahoma; thanks for the warning!

Wendy Darling said...

I'm currently getting my masters in counseling psychology. I've spent the entirety of the last semester learning about how to treat anxiety disorders, and you basically just summed up the whole course in one very accessible blog post. Should I see if I can divert some of my tuition to you?
Well done.

Tova said...

And what does one do when one goes running and gets dive bombed in the head repeatedly by crows. I can know that they are trying to protect their nests, but I'm still terrified. Not sure how to get through that one since it's neither rare, or not that bad. I'm thinking a baseball bat, or pellet gun. And don't suggest that I run away from the crows, there is literally no street without a nest.

Yes, this post might have poked some buttons. I shall sulk for a bit, and then take a deeper look.

lisa j said...

My fear since I was little has been loud noises. Fire alarms going off, fireworks, guns going off at parades etc. Ive been told that I might be extra sensitive to noise because of a medical condition. However, I'm not sure how to get rid of the fear. I avoid fireworks and parades most of the time and if I hear there is fire alarm testing going on in the building I am in I panic my heart races and think of any excuse to get out.

Foster Mom - R said...

Christine- first thank you! Your You Tube videos have helped my family tremendously. I thought of this post today as I was facing my fear of claustrophobia. In the MRI machine I kept repeating I can unlearn this. I can unlearn this. I am fine. My Daughter who frequently sleeps with a blanket over her head and therefore doesn't understand my fear asked me what I was so afraid was going to happen. Basically the worst case scenario. It made me chuckle.

Unknown said...

This is a great post. Just having four kids come home in five years quelled a lot of my fears. LOL! But then there are others...Very thought provoking!