Philosophy of fear: Don't be afraid; you're not alone


Halloween often brings the things we fear out of the shadows to haunt us: spiders, bats and snakes.

But these are only a fraction of the things we truly fear or have anxiety about all year long.

"Fears are a normal developmental occurrence," said Maria Bartini, Ph. D., who studies developmental psychology. Bartini is a professor and chair of the Psychology Department at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

Though we use the terms interchangeably, "Fear," she says, "is the response to something that's directly in front of us versus anxiety, which is related to something future-oriented."

For example, screaming when something or someone sneaks up on you in the dark is a fear response. Worrying about going to the dentist or having to give a presentation in front of 500 people tomorrow is an anxiety.

According to Bartini, fears breed during childhood. It is that discomfort or physiological arousal a person gets when confronted with something.

"When you're faced with a threat or danger, it's why you respond with a faster heart rate or break out into sweat.

The mind is getting the body ready for some sort of action, either confronting or running away from it," Bartini said.

The psychologist said the number and intensity of fears tend to become fewer as we get older.

"Young children tend to be afraid of more fantastical things, things like the bogeyman. As we get older, our fears become more grounded in reality, things people see on the news. As adults who continue to hold onto fears, it becomes anxiety," Bartini said.

In a segment of a 2009 Psychology Today article, "The Dance of Connection," which addresses fear and anxiety, psychologist/psychotherapist Harriet Lerner wrote, "Anxiety, apprehension, fear, terror -- however you name it, what matters is how you cope."

Family members, friends and trained professionals can all play a role in helping you banish your fears or overcoming your anxieties.

Amy Dawidowicz is a certified professional life coach through her company Choose Evolution Coaching Systems ( She said she regularly helps clients face their fears and anxieties, and learn to examine them from a new perspective.

"I always go toward the positive end of fear," Dawidowicz said.

She added that fear and anxiety can be paralyzing, and because of this, people tend to shut down instead of growing or moving forward.

She said one of the biggest anxieties she finds in adults is money.

"People are afraid of success," she said. "People know what failure looks like but they're afraid of power. But if you think of it, power's great. Power is what turns the light on. You have to learn to not be a victim of your own circumstance and you have to learn to do that effectively."

As Bartini noted, fear and anxiety can induce a physiological response. Dawidowicz said the first step to addressing your fears is to have an awareness of what that fear is and how you react.

"So, for example, if you're freaking out about not being able to pay a bill, step back and do some deep breathing to give stability to your central nervous system," Dawidowicz said. "When people tell you to count to 10, there's a reason for it. It helps reset your system and think about things while you're grounded."

Acceptance and action are the next steps to moving beyond your fears, said the life coach.

"It sounds kind of hokey but the important thing is to have faith. Doubt, disappointment, worrying is distressing. When you have faith that everything is going to turn out all right, you're more at ease," she said.

In terms of being proactive about addressing your fears anxieties, both Bartini and Dawidowicz said a person has to regularly be conscious and prepare for a scary or anxiety-inducing situation by looking on the bright side.

"People need a safe space to unload," said Dawidowicz. Because she's not a therapist, she will make referrals for people who need more help.

She said other effective ways of having a safe space include practicing yoga, which is known to calm the body and mind, or being out in nature to take a walk or even have a good shout in the woods.

In Bartini's case, sometimes she literally takes the control into her own hands.

"I watch the ‘The Walking Dead,' and sometimes it gets too intense for me, so I just change the channel," she said.


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