A Step-by-Step Guide to Being Less Scared in 2016
A few ways to avoid pissing your pants when the paranoia starts to set in this year.
Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
About 18.1 percent of the US population has some kind of anxiety disorder. I'm one of that 18.1 percent. Everyone morning, I leave the safety of my bed in the morning, get into a car and careen through traffic, and then arrive at my desk where I'm bombarded with horrifying world news. But I manage to do my job – not because I've beaten back the fear, but because I've learned to coexist with it.
Sure, it's tough to shake certain nagging fears: Is that commotion in the far corner of my office an active shooter? Is this weird pain in my side stage four cancer? Are those white streaks in the sky evidence of a secret plot to control our minds? I tell myself no, and somehow, I get through the day.
But fear is a beast I'd rather slay than keep beside me on a leash. So I've decided 2016 is the year that I march outside my house like Kevin McCallister and announce to my neighbours that I'm not afraid anymore.
For the record, I made a similar resolution in 2015. But there was a lot to be scared of last year. In the US, for example, we saw a spike in mass shootings, at least one of which was officially branded a terror attack. The bloodshed in Paris added fuel to a tinderbox of political instability that shook the foundation of the European Union, sparking ominous predictions that the global economy could collapse all over again. Freak weather events around the world, connected to the now-undeniable reality of global warming, only heightened last year's apocalyptic vibes.
The truth is, all that doom isn't going to magically disappear now that its 2016. Over the next 12 months, scary shit is basically guaranteed to happen in your house, on the news, or even inside your head. But with this three-step scheme, and a little bit of luck, those fear bullets will bounce right off you this year.
Phase 1: Expose Yourself (to Your Phobia)
There's more to avoiding fear in 2016 than avoiding the wrong information about current events. If you're anything like me, there's plenty of scary shit right in your neighbourhood – teens, for example, and dogs.
For years, I had a mild phobia of large dogs. But after taking a long, hard look at the actual danger posed by these animals this past fall, I stumbled upon a side door into conventional treatment for my fear. And I pretty much got over it.
In an interview with Los Angeles clinical psychologist Amber Lea Walser, I learned that by writing an article about my fear of dogs, I was giving myself a form of partial exposure therapy – the thing from TV where people with arachnophobia touch spiders.
"Usually this kind of therapy involves psychoeducation, where you read about it, and educate yourself with the intent of removing any kind of irrational beliefs – like that if you touch a spider you'll have a heart attack and die, or it'll bite you and you'll end up in the hospital," Walser explained.
After my inadvertent "psychoeducation," I now feel free to pet every pit bull I see (within reason). I was lucky it happened so fast. Some people have to take a series of tentative steps toward finally touching the proverbial spider in the box, which is only the last the last step in gradual exposure – a kind of therapy Walser referred to as "flooding."
But treating a phobia won't cure you of all fear. In my case, curing my panic around dogs certainly didn't cure me of the deeper, more all-consuming fear I experience whenever the headlines get scary, as they certainly will again in 2016.
Phase 2: Turn Your Deeper Fears into Something Useful
"If we're talking about what we call 'generalised anxiety disorder,'" said Walser, "part of it is learning to relax, so there might be a lot of emphasis on deep breathing." This might be a good, science-based treatment method, but in a world where so much is horrifying, it's a little hard not to dismiss it as self-help psychobabble. It's no wonder that among US college students – people getting their first real exposure to the real world – anxiety recently surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis.
But even generalised fear usually finds a target. Chapman University's 2015 Survey on American Fears, an annual report that provides an in-depth look at what scares Americans, found that last year, most of the those fears had nothing to do with bodily harm.
The Chapman study suggests that what Americans actually feared most in 2015 was the loss of livelihood and liberty. The top three fears, for example, were "corruption of government officials," "cyber-terrorism," and "corporate tracking of personal information," in that order, with conventional terrorist attacks coming in fourth place. The top ten list also included "identity theft," "economic collapse," and "running out of money," which are all, in a manner of speaking, essentially the same thing.
The survey indicates that American fears are rooted in a combination of financial concerns, and the idea that the government is out to get us. I recognise that fear, but I also suspect some participants might have had an unhealthy level of paranoia. One criterion for inclusion in the Chapman survey is that participants must not be institutionalized, but that doesn't mean the study excluded people with delusions.
Unlike, say, bodily injury or spiders, the most prevalent fears listed in the Chapman survey are abstract, making it easy for people to, as Walser put it, "generalise to the whole world." In the worst case scenario, she said, people wind up afraid to leave their own houses. "We often talk about distorted thoughts and fears being catastrophic," Walser said. "We want to really assess: Is this a catastrophic belief, or is this something that can really happen?"
In other words, when you freak out over a huge expense, are you getting paralysed and feeling like the sky is falling, or are you getting your ass in gear and doing something about it? According to Walser, the choice is yours. "You can be fearful, and direct that toward motivating you," she added.
Phase 3: If You're Still Scared, Make Sure You're Not Delusional
True paranoia, Walser explained, manifests itself in common themes. Government and politics are the obvious ones, but the paranoia can also be about more mundane concerns, like an unfaithful partner.
"It can be rooted in reality, that they're in a relationship, and they think they're being cheated on, or they can be pretty outlandish – the black helicopter type thing," she said.
That's not to say that worrying about the government is always irrational. If the government behaved like an organisation that deserved our trust, conspiracy theories would be absurd. But with the NSA enjoying a buffet of our communications data, high-ranking elected officials engaging in alleged corruption, and the military carrying on in Guantanamo Bay, you'd have to be crazy to be among the 23 percent of Americans who actually trust the US government.
But that doesn't mean you should fly off the handle any time someone mentions federal emergency management. In 2015, for instance, the military's Jade Helm 13 exercise was a good rabbit hole for the mildly paranoid to explore, but it also seemed to be a trigger for people who probably suffered from delusions.
"Paranoia and delusion can appear anxiety-based, but they really lean more toward psychotic processes," Walser said. "With therapy, and with evidence, this person is unable to shake this belief. Then we're talking about something other than anxiety. Then we're talking about a disorder – psychosis, essentially."
As the Oxford Textbook of Psychopathology points out, "There is for all of us a trade-off between vigilance and vulnerability, and it is sometimes not obvious whether tilting one way or the other is the healthier." In other words, it's tricky.
If your fear and anxiety are giving way to psychosis, the right move according to Walser is to "see a psychiatrist." But if you're delusional, a quick guide to living without fear probably won't convince you to do that.
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Note: The difference between "gradual exposure" and "flooding" has been clarified in this version.