PROGRESS 2024 - Health & Fitness

Dealing with irrational fear

By Rana Jones, Herald Reporter
Posted 4/10/24

My dog, Squid, is a cattle dog mix known for his high energy and enthusiasm. When I adopted him over nine years ago, he was part wild. One of the first hikes we did together he tore off sprinting on …

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PROGRESS 2024 - Health & Fitness

Dealing with irrational fear


My dog, Squid, is a cattle dog mix known for his high energy and enthusiasm. When I adopted him over nine years ago, he was part wild. One of the first hikes we did together he tore off sprinting on top of a snow cornice. Since then, he has calmed down a bit but still leaps over the tops of sage brush on the hunt for anything that moves, and always ready to chase something thrown, even if that requires jumping off a 10-foot cliff. His courage and finesse are inspiring.

Indoors is a different ballgame for my fearless pup. Shiny floors terrify him. The moment his paw pad touches the smooth surface of linoleum, laminate or tile he freezes. Sinking into what looks like an army crawl he slowly approaches a more desired surface such as carpet, whimpering his way to safety. A few feet from the reprieve of the soft stuff he will skid out, claws searching for grip that is not there. Flailing legs, his joints landing hard on the slick floor making a very ungraceful approach to the rug.

“Chill out and move slowly, Squid. It’s just tile, bro.” Easier said than done, and I’m a hypocrite for teasing his irrational fear. I try to console him, but it is embarrassing seeing my otherwise brave and amazing dog make a fool of himself in the safety of my friend’s homes.

While I am not afraid of linoleum, I, too, experience irrational fear. I am open to talk about it with those who want to listen, which allows other fellow scaredy-cats an opportunity to share their phobias.

One of my friends is literally afraid of cats. When she told me this I laughed and said, “I wish that was my fear.” But, apparently, we don’t get to choose our fears. Somehow, our own unique phobias find a way in, worm a spot in our psyche, and force us to acknowledge their presence.

That is what fear wants. Recognition. I have learned to relate to my fear better, but it has not been easy. Like Squid, I would freeze and whimper, then in a panic, peel out, scrambling for safety which inevitably made it worse.

This approach taught my brain that was the appropriate route any time I felt the uneasiness and discomfort creep in. This would be rather harmless if the result was merely sliding on a slick floor, but reinforcing my brain to respond to unnecessary fear becomes detrimental.

Turns out rewiring the brain once a fear response is entrenched, takes effort. Retraining an anxious brain requires providing new information to the limbic system including gradual exposure (facing fearful situations incrementally) and examining thoughts (challenging fearful thoughts and beliefs).

Loosening my grip on fear has been a challenge as old habits die hard. Just as Squid would prefer all houses have wall-to-wall carpeting, I would also like to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of fear. Not only is that not realistic, but steals from the opportunity to learn.

I am now relating to fear as a chance to become stronger and healthier. I am not saying I like the feeling of fear, but I am better able to manage it now that I have a different perspective of it. 

I will spare details of the content of my fears; it’s irrelevant. Part of fear’s power is tricking me into focusing on the content. That is when I get pulled down the rabbit hole of mental rumination. To fight back, I drop the story around the content and focus on how I respond to fear itself. While fear hurls threats at me, I now remind myself that I don’t have to play its games. Suddenly the weapons fear hurls at me fall harmlessly to the ground. 

A tool I use now to get out of the worry trap is self-compassion. This is a very powerful insulator from the worrying habit. Learning that perfectionism and self-criticism are triggers has helped me fight back the stranglehold of fear.

Becoming aware that my inner critic wants to narrate almost constantly; relentlessly rehashing my failures, I can then change the dialogue to something more compassionate. Instead of beating myself up, I can instead say to myself, “I know you are trying to help, but the judgment is not useful, so I choose to be in the present moment.”

I keep a picture of myself as a child on my desk to help me find self-kindness. I try to think what that child would have wanted to hear. I try to remind myself that I am a work in progress because I am human.

Psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck discovered the difference between growth mindset and fixed mindset. Her findings suggest that the way people tolerate and perceive failure depends on their mindset.

With the growth mindset, not only were people not discouraged by failure, but they didn’t even think they were failing, instead viewing it as an opportunity for growth. Whereas the fixed mindset folks were so discouraged by the idea of not being good enough that they didn’t even try.

Obviously, the growth mindset is the preferred route, but some of us were not taught this growing up and must learn it for ourselves. In my childhood household, mistakes were viewed as “bad” and reflected who I was as a person. This flawed “wrong” version of me could not be trusted. With no room for error or grace, life became scary.

Viewing failure as feedback instead of a mistake is another tool that I now use in the face of fear, but there is no magic bullet. I have had to incorporate other strategies to combat the grisly beast of terror, and I’m still learning and practicing.

Although the future is unknown, and uncertainty is uncomfortable, it is a part of life and it’s OK. Instead of cowering to fear, I’m learning to show up with grace, love myself and have the courage to live in the discomfort.