Rainier Behavioral Health

Fear can make you stupid!

Yes, indeed it can – as well as its close cousin, anxiety. The two terms refer to similar phenomena but are somewhat different in experience. Fear is often about a specific object – we’re afraid of snakes, spiders, failing an exam or being rejected by a potential partner or friend. Anxiety tends to be more diffuse – we feel afraid but often can’t say what about. And anxiety is broader – we feel afraid of many things, perhaps everything.

How can fear make us stupid? When we’re afraid of something we tend to avoid it and we can make some really bad decisions as a result. For example, a young man who is afraid to ask a woman for a date may avoid even calling or approaching her – or any other woman – thus insuring he doesn’t get any dates. A woman who is afraid she might be rejected for a potential job may not even apply, thus insuring she doesn’t get that job or perhaps any job. Someone who is afraid his house won’t sell may put it on the market at an unusually low price, thus losing significant income. And many of us have experienced voting for a political candidate who appeals to our fears and anxieties only to regret our action later. Don’t follow your fears!

Avoidance can be seen as a central human problem because if we avoid fearful situations, we cannot then learn from experience. But not trying certainly reduces the chance of failure because if we don’t try we can’t fail! But of course, we can’t succeed either. Is your motivation to achieve success or to avoid failure? As Theodore Roosevelt once said,

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

I often tell my clients (and myself), “Don’t run your life on fear!” But many people do and perhaps all of us do it occasionally.

                What can we do to reduce fear and therefore avoidance? The best way, although certainly not the most comfortable, is to face our fears directly. I have a saying I use, “In order to get past it you have to go through it.” In other words, if you continuously avoid things that make you afraid or respond to situations based on your fears, you can’t ever learn how to get past your fears or even learn that they might not be as scary as you think.

                There is a metaphor I often use with fearful/avoidant clients, “Climb the Hill of Fear.” Imagine your fear as a hill; as you approach it, you feel afraid and so therefore you back off which reduces your fear. But reduction of fear is rewarding so it is easier to do the same thing next time, thus rewarding avoidance. Also, we think the Hill of Fear has no top so if we climb it our fear will increase continuously without end. But it has a top; eventually our fear will dissipate and we will be able to come down the other side with less fear. We just have to sit with our fear for a while until it dissipates which of course few people want to do. But it works!

                If you are fearful and avoidant, you don’t have to stay that way. Make an appointment with a mental health professional and learn how to reduce your fear. You’ll be happier and more engaged with life.

E. Thomas Dowd, Ph.D., ABPP

Licensed Psychologist

Board certified in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology

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