helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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Myths about Fear

This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently.

Last night I made the mistake of reading the livejournal of someone with a far more serious medical condition than mine. While it was interesting, it was singularly unhelpful for me to be reading about that person's experiences. Because then I started making comparisons between their medical condition and mine, and worse - between the level of bravery that person must have compared to me. And as we should all know by now, comparing your levels of pain or bravery to other people's is rarely a good idea... You never come out feeling positive about yourself.

Myth 1: Fear is Binary
Yes indeed, there are two sorts of people in the world: brave people (also known as strong), and cowardly people (also known as weak or wusses).

What a load of bullshit that is! Everyone is brave about some things and cowardly about other things. The reason why it seems as though people can be divided into brave and cowardly is really due to myth number 2:

Myth 2: Fear is Commutative
Everyone in the world has the same fears. So if someone can do something that you're afraid to do, they are braver than you.

To illustrate why this is rubbish, let me use two examples:
1) Removing a spider from the bath
2) Getting a burger out of the freezer

Now, I am sure that at least 1/4 of the people reading this feel a frisson relating to the need to remove a spider from a bathtub. I could make it even more scary by saying it's a large spider, and you're in a country where some spiders are poisonous to humans, and you don't recognise this one to know if it's poisonous or not. Are the arachnophobics cowering yet? Now, I quite like spiders, and certainly in my country where there are no poisonous native spiders, it's completely trivial for me to remove a spider from, well, anything.

I am not afraid of spiders. So is it brave of me to remove one for someone who is afraid? No. It's completely mundane, or routine. It might be kind for me to do that for them, but it's not an act of bravery on my part. But: it would be easy for the arachnophobe to assume that everyone in the world shared their phobia, and some people were just better at hiding it than others. And it would be easy for that person to assume that I am braver than them, because I'm not afraid.

OK. I am afraid of freezers. Specifically, I have had a phobia of being trapped inside a freezer and slowly freezing to death since I was very young, and I have had somewhere in excess of 1000 nightmares with that scenario. For me, going into the freezer aisle of a supermarket can be difficult. Most supermarkets these days use modern, upright freezers with glass fronts and no catches on the doors - and I am significantly less afraid of them because they are a) transparent, b) possible to get out of and c) too well-secured for me to be able to pull one on top of myself. I am, however, unable to go into shops like Iceland that are nothing but freezers, and get very panicky in electrical showrooms where there are lots of freezers with their doors open. I react to freezer advertisements in women's magazines in the same way as arachnophobes react to a picture of a large tarantula. Even my own domestic freezer is something I approach with caution. There's a reason why our fridge-freezer is completely covered in magnets, poetry and stickers - it makes it less scary.

Now, you are (presumably) a normal person who is not afraid of freezers (I've never actually met anyone who has this phobia, although I can't say I've talked about it much). For you, the thought of going in a freezer to get a burger is an utterly mundane, everyday occurrence, and even if my words have made you a bit apprehensive about the possibility of getting trapped, you know full well you wouldn't fit in your domestic one. Are you braver than me because you're not scared?

Myth 3: Fear has Levels To Master
It's certainly true that within a particular fear, there are levels of scariness. Going back to the spider in the bath, the spectrum would be something like:
Small, harmless spider < Large, harmless spider < Big hairy tarantula
(there are probably lots of sub-levels, but I don't actually want all the spider phobics hiding behind the sofa instead of reading this)

The problem is, suppose one day you manage to pick up the small, harmless spider and get it out the window. Maybe there was no one else around to help, so you had no choice but to confront your fear. What can happen then is that you develop some positive thoughts about your fear. Having managed to move a small, harmless spider once - you've done that. So you can do it again.

But along with these positive thoughts, you can get some neutral, or even negative thoughts. Like the thought that you don't need to be scared this time. Is that necessarily true? Certainly, you don't need to be as scared as you were before, but that doesn't necessarily stop you being scared. And supposing you are still scared despite having already done it, then bad voices at the back of your head can start up, telling you that you're pathetic and useless.

Another not-necessarily-positive thought is the idea that having "graduated" from the "moving small spiders" course (Spider Management 101), you are automatically entered into the "moving larger spiders" course. Having successfully moved the little spider, you can now try bigger ones! And you really don't need to be scared, of any of them! OK, again, that could help some people - but it might not, depending on your self-esteem. Because if part of your mind is deciding that you're ready for Spider Management 102 while the rest of it is still freaking out about Spider Management 101 (I did it once! And that was terrifying!), part of your mind can decide that you're a wuss, and a bad person. And then you start believing that.

I am scared of hypodermic needles. Over the past few months, I have had more needles stuck in me for longer time periods than in my entire life so far. I can now almost approach a blood test without completely freaking out externally. I can almost have it done without freaking out internally, as long as I am not already in pain. I have had a needle stuck into my hand for whole days at a time and received drugs and fluids through it. It hurt. I'm still scared of it.

Am I a coward for being afraid? No, I'm brave for feeling the fear, yet attempting to remain calm so the medical professionals can do the scary horrible thing to me. I can sit here in fucking tears, but still be brave.

Myth 4: Brave People Feel No Fear
Let's just jump up and down and shout BOLLOCKS to this one. What did I just say? I'm brave for feeling afraid, yet doing the scary thing anyway. If I felt no fear, I wouldn't need to be brave - we'd be back with Myth 2, and me, who likes spiders, taking the beastie away for the arachnophobe.

It's not bravery if you're not afraid. I don't know what it is. I suppose it could be bravery if you used to be afraid and you've managed to learn not to be. But it's certainly not brave to be able to do something if you weren't ever afraid of it.

I'm sure there are other Myths. These are the ones that have been biting me in the arse.

Lessons for Me To Learn:
1. It is utterly, utterly, unhelpful for me to compare my "suffering" to someone else's. Pain is pain. Pain halved is still pain. Pain squared is still pain.
2. It is utterly, unhelpful for me to compare my "bravery" to someone else's. Different people have different fears. Being able to do something I can't doesn't automatically make that person braver than me.
3. I need to stop assuming that other people are afraid of the same things I am. I know full well that no one else I know is as scared of freezers as I am - so why do I assume that everyone else is braver than me for being able to deal with icky medical things better than me? Maybe the icky medical things don't scare them in the first place.
4. It is ridiculous for me to compare my level of fear about something to someone else's. Having needles stuck in me is frightening for me. Perhaps it isn't for the insulin-dependent diabetic who's been doing it every day since the age of 4. But maybe that person is scared of explosive chemicals, or broken glass, or rollercoasters - which bother me not at all.
5. Getting used to something <> Losing the fear of it. You can put up with something that is uncomfortable or painful every single day, but it could still be scary. That hypothetical insulin-dependent diabetic might still be afraid of the injection on some level. Look at the number of people who can't wait until they develop a nasal spray to do the same thing.
6. Being able to deal with having had a needle stuck in my hand for a few days <> I should now be able to deal with a bunch of other tubes being stuck in me. I barely passed Medical Tubing 101. I'm not ready for the advanced course yet - and nor should I expect to be.
7. Having (a) medical condition(/s) that are more horrible than mine <> That person is braver than me. Ever noticed how someone who's diagnosed with something horrible always gets called "brave" in the newspaper, and their attempt to carry on living is described as "a fight" or "a valiant battle"? Might not be true: maybe they are brave, or maybe they're just stubborn. John Diamond talked about this at length, and wrote a book called "Because Cowards Get Cancer Too".

Comments? And yes, you can link to this, in your own journal or a neutral-to-friendly one. I really don't want to be discussing my freezer phobia and how weird it is/how I really should do something about it (with the emphasis on the fact that I apparently haven't done anything about it so far) with a load of strangers.
Tags: cognitive therapy, mental health

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