Claire M. Burnett
From Bracing to Embracing
Updated: Feb 18, 2019
How to deal with a Fear of the Unknown
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Silence pounced between us as I sat in sheer exhaustion of verbally expressing myself.
I'd run out of words and I knew she was waiting for me to verbally vomit. I've been on this couch enough times to know how it works. She's trained to sit through awkward silences.; to give me enough time to break into my discomfort and share all of my thoughts, or to allow herself enough time to asses where to begin with her questioning.
"What are you feeling?" she finally muttered.
Still mentally and emotionally exhausted, I managed to muster as few words as could accurately describe my temperament, holding onto the tiny bit of hope that we could make it go away if I tried hard enough.
"Anxious. Nervous. Overwhelmed." I responded lethargically.
"Why do you think you're experiencing these emotions?"
"Because I don't know how it's going to play out."
"Would knowing make you feel better?"
"What if you knew it was bad?"
I rolled my eyes in annoyance of the question. "C'mon Candace. Then I'd obviously avoid it."
"So you want to be able to avoid pain?"
Well that would be ideal. It would save a lot of time and energy.
"What if pain is the best way for you to learn?"
I sat silently staring at the stack of magazines. Partially because I hated that the question made a fair point, and also because I was exhausted at the fact that sometimes pain had to be experienced in order to learn.
"We've dug into understanding why you live in a state of bracing. But how can we start to EMbrace every and anything that could ever happen to you? How can we change the narrative about pain so that you aren't so fearful of it?
With every intention to be a smart ass, I looked back at her stoically responding: "Well since it's called pain for a reason…and no one's ever thought of it as fun…since you're the therapist, you tell me."
Why Do We Fear The Unknown?
Simply stated: Because the unknown COULD suck, and we're self-preserving creatures.
Having an increased sensitivity to ambiguous, uncertain threats—or a hyper-vigilant fear of the unknown—is at the root of most fear-based psychopathologies according to a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The researchers found that a wide range of anxiety disorders—including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias—all share a common response to general feelings of caution and heightened stress triggered by the unpredictability of unknown threats.
It's extremely similar to being afraid of the dark. It’s not the darkness itself that’s frightening. It’s the fear of what the darkness masks.
The dark leaves us vulnerable and exposed, unable to spot any threats that may be lurking nearby.
Recall the story of Gideon. Gideon is our poster boy for fear, anxiety and doubt. When God first commanded him to rescue the Israelites, Gideon was hiding in a wine press to escape his enemies (Judges 6:11).
So, what exactly is our problem!?
We Hate Losing.
Avoiding risk is the natural, “logical” conclusion. But why are we so "loss-focused." Why do people more naturally lend to thinking about "things getting worse" instead of "things getting better?"
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were two Israeli researchers who looked into the subject of cognitive psychology in depth. They developed "The Prospect Theory" which went on to win them a Nobel Prize for economics, despite neither of them ever taking a single class in economics.
So what does the theory actually say!? Great question.
It’s basically a behavioral model that comes from the fact that people base their choices on loss and gain rather than the actual outcome. They argued that losses hit us harder than objectively equivalent gains.
Example: Betting $5 on something – losing $5 will affect us much stronger than gaining $5 from that bet. In other words, we are loss-aversive in our very nature.
Back to Gideon. Throughout his entire story, he constantly tested God by asking him to perform signs. First, he had God consume an offering of food he presented to the angel (Judges 6:20-21). Next, he petitioned God to send morning dew only on a piece of fleece he laid out (Judges 6:37-38). Finally, just for good measure, he lay out the fleece again but asked for the exact opposite to happen (Judges 6:39-40)!
I'm not sure about you, but if I was God, I would've told Gideon to go on about his business. But, since I'm not…I'm doing my best to have the empathy that God thankfully has in recognizing that Gideon was afraid. When he finally put his trust in God and obeyed, the Israelites were freed from seven years of oppression.
So where does this leave us? We are scared of the unknown because we can’t control it, we can’t understand it, and will, by default, choose to view it as negative 9 out of 10 times. But we can choose to remember who holds it. And believe that God is ultimately good.
From Bracing to Embracing
The mind is an instrument designed to keep us safe, not to make us happy.
When it makes a decision about the future, the mind makes the situation a lot worse and predicts the outcome to be much more disastrous than it will actually be. Sometimes things do not turn out for the best, but they always turn out less wrong than we feared. Fear is not reality. Fear is an emotional consequence brought about by erroneous thinking.
So here are five strategies I'm using to help combat anxiety in the face of the unknown:
Acknowledge Your Fear. Don't dismiss it. It doesn't need to make any sense to anyone else. Your feelings are real and the next steps are to determine if they're reliable. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Remind Yourself of the Truth of Today. Take your thoughts to court. Pretend that someone could hear every single thought in your head. Would you sound reasonable? We need to tune in, challenge and then re-calibrate our often exaggerated and unhelpful thinking. We have to stop our self-preservation mode from going haywire, and take a realistic assessment of the facts we actually know, then plant ourselves there. (Matthew 6:34)
Good Things Don't Always Look the Way You EXPECTED them To. It's important for us to remind ourselves that good things CAN and WILL happen. Even if they don't look the way we wanted them to. If we start to embrace this mindset, then we can start to realize that maybe our "worst case scenario" is actually our blessing in disguise. (Romans 8:28)
Live in the Tension. I don't know about you, but I'm a master at coping. Coping simply serves as a distraction and never gives me a chance to actually deal with the struggle at hand. If we're open to it, we can train ourselves and grow our muscles for waiting. That way, the next time we find ourselves in similar situations, the territory isn't completely foreign. What are some ways we can do this? Well…think about some healthy activities you can engage in that wouldn't otherwise be a complete waste of your time. For instance…maybe instead of spending 30 minutes worrying, I'll go work out instead. Or journal! (1 Timothy 4:8-16)
FIND the Joy in the Journey. The key here is to frame any less than desirable outcomes as learning opportunities. If we take away the idea of failure and use setbacks as experiences to draw lessons from, then there will always inevitably be a positive outcome even in the messiness. (James 1: 2-4)
"The Universe Has Your Back."
And the good news is, we get to decide if we want to believe that, or not. ;)
Have any thoughts or feedback? HMU at email@example.com
As always, #KeepItWhyld,
Your Fake Therapist