As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by scary images. Giant spiders, grinning skeletons, ugly witches and flickering jack-o-lanterns can give you the creeps as they seem to pop up everywhere you look. You may be brave enough to venture into a haunted house and allow the ghouls and ghosts to scare you out of your wits, but deep down, you know it’s not real. Before long, you come out into the light and tease your friends about how loudly they screamed.
If only every scary thing in life were so simple! The incidence of anxiety is increasing in the US, thanks in part to the speed with which we can hear or read a barrage of bad news all day, every day. Many people are afraid to let their children play because they’re sure they will get hurt or a stranger will kidnap them. They worry constantly about the state of the nation and are convinced the world will end soon. Some people are panicking over every minor ache or pain because it could be some new disease that was just discovered overseas. If you’re looking for a reason to be anxious, just click into social media or turn on the news.
Often these fears are irrational, exaggerated and unlikely to ever actually happen. Of course it’s important to supervise children appropriately. Yes, we need to be informed about national events so we can vote according to our values and consciences. It is always wise to live a healthy lifestyle and check out persistent symptoms with your doctor (not just Google). But living in constant fear of everything that might happen will steal your energy and your happiness.
At some time, however, you will likely face something genuinely terrifying. A grim diagnosis for a loved one or yourself; loss of a job when bills are due; news that a hurricane, fire or flood is heading your way; the phone call that says your child is hurt or in trouble – in those situations, fear is a normal and rational response. Fear is called an “adaptive emotion” because it prompts us to “adapt” and prepare to meet an oncoming danger.
When fear is handled poorly, it can degenerate into worry, which is characterized by ineffective hand-wringing and inability to respond. Worry leads to “fortune telling” where you look into the future and imagine every possible worst-case scenario, which only escalates panic.
When handled in a healthy manner, fear can lead to courageous action. Questions to ask yourself may be: What is the next right step? What resources do I have to help address the situation? Who else has resources that can help? What MUST I do? What CAN I do? One helpful question to ask yourself is: What elements of this situation are completely out of my control? Knowing what you cannot do can be helpful in directing how you use your time, effort and resources.
While you are working out what action to take, it is important to recognize and accept the emotions you will feel. Anger, sadness, frustration and pain are normal, healthy responses to tragedies and frightening circumstances, but it is important to exercise judgement in how and when to express them to avoid making the situation worse. For example, screaming at a doctor while he is trying to revive someone you love who has overdosed is more likely to hinder than help – but it happens! Avoid putting your energy into blame and revenge; they will derail your efforts to respond effectively. While you acknowledge and express your emotions appropriately, don’t put them in charge of crisis management!
Remind yourself of the truth that being afraid doesn’t have to defeat you. The greatest acts of courage occur in the face of fear, not in its absence. Don’t wait until you “feel” more hopeful to begin acting hopefully and constructively. Take time to reflect, pray and gather wisdom to face the scary circumstances. Seek out support and let others lend you their strength when you feel as though yours is running out. Remember that whatever you are going through, you are not the first, nor will you be the last. The timeless truth is that life includes both good times and bad times. The question is not, “Why me?” but “Is it my turn?” followed by, “Where do I go from here?”
For today, smile confidently at the spooky decorations, knowing they are just part of a short season. Tell the trick or treaters how cute they look, be generous with the candy, and maybe even sneak a couple for yourself. If possible, set aside what really scares you for one night of fun!
Live, Work & Relate Well!
Dr. Linaman is a psychologist and executive coach providing counseling and professional development services to individuals, couples, work teams and organizations.