Reality Check: That Which Strikes Fear

Did you hear the story about the person who called police on a vacuum cleaner that was trapped in the bathroom?
Apparently, the resident could see shadows under the bathroom door. There was obviously something amiss; no one was supposed to be in there. Fearing a burglar, police were called.
Police arrived complete with a canine and detected shuffling noises coming from the bathroom. Something was going on. After commands issued to the suspect through the bathroom door were ignored, police entered. What did they find? A robotic vacuum cleaner, merrily cleaning away. It was apparently doing a good job of it, too!
Because the source of the fear in this case turned out to be something that wasn’t frightening at all, it’s all funny and ridiculous. At least, it’s funny when it’s not happening to you. Or me.
However, we don’t necessarily know what warrants a fearful response and what doesn’t. Had there actually been a burglar in the bathroom, calling the police would have been a prudent move. It’s only in hindsight, with additional information, that it sounds silly.
Fear, like our other feelings, has a purpose and adds value to our lives. Joel Wade, in The Virtue of Happiness, says, “Fear is a response to a perceived threat.” Fear gives us information, such as “Danger! Be careful; Call the police!”
But just because we perceive a threat doesn’t mean that a valid threat exists.
Dr. Wade makes another point about the usefulness of feelings. “Feelings are useful if we integrate them with our conscious awareness.” If we don’t bring our conscious awareness—our thoughts—to the issue, our feelings can spin us around in all directions, which may not be helpful.
Dr. Glasser refers to total behaviour: physiology, feelings, thoughts and actions. He suggests that we use the parts of our behaviour that are easier to control, such as actions and thinking, to change our less controllable feelings and physiology. A physical action and/or conscious thought can influence what might seem to be out-of-control feelings.
Practically speaking, what does that mean? What action can we take that could help?
Dr. Wade suggests that when one takes the view that a feeling, such as anxiety, is a psychological issue, then it’s hard to figure out what to do. Just like the mysterious noises coming from the bathroom, perceiving anxiety as a psychological mystery adds to the feeling of being out of control and helpless.
Instead, Dr. Wade says if you view anxiety as something that’s happening physically, then it becomes less mysterious and more manageable.
What difference does that make? For example, instead of fretting about the anxious feeling, focus on what is happening in your body. Whether it’s butterflies, trembling, shallow breathing; consciously observe what’s happening. Think of what actions you can take to deal with your specific physical symptoms. For example, when you detect that you are taking shallow breaths, choose to breathe more deeply.
Understanding “why” can also be helpful to gain a sense of control. Interesting research that Dr. Wade references concerns the possibility that some people may be more sensitive than others to small changes in carbon dioxide level, possibly causing an increased tendency to panic. While that’s speculation, it could provide some comfort and sense of control for the panic sufferer to understand why conscious breathing might be helpful.
If you find that fearful feelings disrupt your life, is this approach worth a try? Look at the feeling of fear from the perspective of physical symptoms. Find one thing that you can do that will reduce one of those physical symptoms. Then assess. Does that help? Or not help?
If you were hearing mysterious noises coming from the bathroom, what would you do?

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