Hierarchy of Fears

Here it is! I’ve finally committed to writing about the hierarchy of fear. Let’s define a few things before we dive right in.

When you have lived with panic/anxiety disorder for while, you develop a pattern of avoidance called agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is defined as “fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment”. So essentially, this is the fear of fear I keep talking about.

It starts out so subtly that you don’t even realize that it’s developing, but the avoidance of fears can only last for so long. It starts to affect the way you live your life in a very limiting way. There are people who’s agoraphobia is so extreme that they become housebound. I met a lady once after college, when I was living in Florida, that had this condition, and it was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing.

What a miserable way to live! How could you be afraid to leave your house? 

Little did I know that one day I would be so close to knowing that feeling. It has never been that bad for me; yes, I do prefer the comforts of home, but I like to get out of the house. There was a time when things were really bad that leaving the house was starting to feel like a threat, but luckily I interviened with medication.

When I first read about common fears that can induce panic and anxiety, I felt instantly understood.

You mean there are other people who feel like they are going to die if they sit in the middle seat in a movie theater? I’m not the only one who panics when the door closes in a meeting? Wait, I feel like I’m suffocating on the subway too! 

When you develop these fears and hide them from the world, you feel like no one understands. You feel ridiculous, embarrassed, inferior. It’s terribly isolating. But you may be surprised to find that most of your fears and phobias are common and are understood by millions.

Approximately 3.2 million American adults ages 18 to 54, or about 2.2 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have agoraphobia. Specific phobia involves marked and persistent fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation.

Statistics | Mental Illness Research Association

Still feel alone? Sure you do. Better maybe, but where are all these people when you need them? It’s not like everyone’s open and understanding about it. Most people I know try to hide it or are unaware of what is actually happening to them. It took me 5 years to figure out and accept my issues. That’s a lot of time for people to walk around feeling scared and confused.

If you are one of the just plain scared and confused, you need to be proactive about treatment. There’s a difference in just being scared of something versus developing an actual phobia that changes your behavior and thought patterns. For some, a trip to a doctor/therapist  is a good place to start. Maybe a tweak in your diet and exercise regiment will make a world of difference. Meditation/prayer and getting enough sleep works wonders. But we are all different, and in different stages of the game. Since I was uneducated on how to heal myself naturally, I had little success and sought medication to get a jump start on my therapy. But if you catch it early enough, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy can be very successful in treating panic. It’s considered the gold standard among psychologists for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.

In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy | Psych Central

Of course, the way we think influences the way we feel. Our feelings and emotions influence our perspective on fear. Changing these thought patterns can be extremely helpful. Of course, if you are deep in the emotional pit of thinking, (which is where I tend to find myself often) logical thought training can be a challenge. For me, it made more sense to start CBT after finding a helpful medication to stabilize things a bit.

Exposure Therapy is a derivative of this theory; it’s also the most challenging since it involves directly facing your fears in order to overcome them. As scary as this sounds, for me it’s proven the most successful, that is, when I can muster up the courage to practice it.

Every time I get onto the highway, I’m using the exposure therapy technique. There is a big difference in the mindset that you use when exposing yourself to your fears. When you are actively practicing exposure therapy, you voluntarily put yourself in a position to become anxious and panicky, but you are prepared to let it happen instead of resist the fear. The resistance and avoidance is what essentially feeds the panic. Letting go of resistance is key. However, you must be prepared with the right tools before you practice.

So back to your list of fears. This is one of the first steps you must take before you begin any kind of therapy. You can simply jot them down on scratch paper or use a template like the one here:

There are different types of templates, and they vary slightly; play around with them until you find one you like.

You start with a general category. For me the big ones are driving, flying, confined spaces (this is very broad), darkness and crowds. Every one of these general categories that for me, has multiple sub-categories. For example, Fear of Confined Spaces could have the subcategories subways, tunnels, movie theaters, elevators, church, meetings, etc.

Once you decide which fear to start with, list each varying situation and rate them according to the scale you are using. Then, put them in order from least scariest to most. Now you have your starting point. Each baby step you take in conquering your fears is a step of success. It may feel painfully slow and cumbersome, but be patient with the process.

Again, it is important to know before you start practicing with panic that you need access to tools that will help you cope with the fearful situation. The AWARE steps I mentioned before are essential tools for riding out a panic attack. Of course there are various other tools that can help you with your anxiety in general, and I will cover those later. But for now, listing out and organizing your fears is a great start.

As you write out your fears, you may notice some of their powers instantly fading. Simply getting these thoughts out of your head and on to paper can be extremely therapeutic. Why do you think I started this here blog, people?!

You are a powerful voice in your own life. As hopeless as you may feel, you can change the way you react to your fears. Once you learn and truly start to believe that fear is a liar, that power is given back to you. It’s been there all along, you just have to learn to trust and believe it.

So write out your list. Your list of lies. I can’t wait for you to start crossing them off one by one. Cross them off and tell them to go where the sun don’t shine and never come back. Seats taken, fear. You’re not welcome here.