The Effects of Chronic Fear and What to do About it: A guide to thought catching

If you have ever felt a pang of fear in your gut, then you have experienced first-hand one of the many mechanisms your body uses to keep you alive. For example, as a child you may have touched something dangerously hot, a stove or a candle’s flame, simply out of curiosity; however, you likely burned your little finger, causing you sharp pain, surprise, and, you guessed it, fear. After you were all patched up, your pain and fear subsided, but, out of your pain and fear, you developed a better understanding of the world around you. And you probably never touched a hot stove again (at least not on purpose!).

While it is not a particularly pleasant feeling, fear is a natural human emotion. The above example is just one of many ways that our sense of fear has adapted to the ever-changing world around us, without ever changing its intentions- to keep us safe and alive. Years ago, our fear response was put to good use by the hunters and gatherers of early human civilization. When we hunted, we relied not only on our sense of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, but also on many chemical processes that happened right under our skin. Our fear initiates what we call the “fight or flight response,” a chemical process by which your body releases hormones which heighten your senses and prepare you to either fight off a threat or run from a predator. This response has aided and protected both our hunters and gatherers, helping them to care for each other and raise their young in a cycle that has permitted the advancement of human growth for centuries. Simply put, even unpleasant sensations can be vital to our survival.

On the other hand, too much of anything is still a bad thing. As our civilization has developed, our sense of fear has adapted. While, in America, it is very unlikely that you will ever find yourself making the decision to either run from or fight off a 300-400 pound lion, you still use your fight or flight response, nonetheless. When you think about or do something that causes you anxiety, stress, fear, or anger and your heart begins to race or your hands begin to shake, you are experiencing a fight or flight response and your body is trying to ensure that you are alert to handle any potential dangers. This is one of the many ways fear has adapted with our changing times to continue to keep us safe, healthy, and alive; however, fear has never acted alone. In the case of our early ancestors, once a dangerous situation was resolved, their bodies relaxed, and their fear responses subsided. Today, many of the “threats” and “predators”  that we are exposed to are not physical beings, and cannot be fought off or fled from.

In today’s society, our fear response can often become triggered by the copious amounts of stress and anxiety that we experience as a result of familial, societal, and work-related pressure to perform in a specific manner. Our fight or flight response becomes activated, and we feel it physically, as our heart races, our head pounds, and our hands shake in response. While this is still a normal, natural response that our bodies have as a reaction to environmental stimuli, your body is not meant to sustain this state of being. Your body needs periods of time for your fear response to subside so that it can relax and heal properly. Sustaining a state of activated fear response without allowing your body periods of rest and healing eventually sends your body into a state of exhaustion, which may exacerbate any illnesses that you already have and may leave you more susceptible to other illnesses in the present.

How do you promote healthy responses in this vicious cycle? The first step is always awareness. Changing any sort of habit first requires understanding of the habit in its current form. At any given time, you probably have about a million thoughts barreling through your mind. With so much going on, how can you really have control over every single thought? Martin Seligman, an American psychologist who has spent much of his career working in the field of Positive Psychology, detailed that people experience what are called automatic thoughts, or thoughts that we have so regularly, they become second nature to us. Almost like beliefs, these thoughts become engrained in our mind, and we may not even realize the effect that they have on us. Automatic thoughts are not inherently good or bad, they are simply thoughts that we have; however, with time, negative thoughts and feelings that you experience can become part of these automatic thoughts. Before you know it, you’re thinking “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’ll never be able to. . .” x, y, or z. It is important to remember that everyone feels inadequate sometimes. No one is perfect, and we all experience some of these thoughts and feelings at certain points throughout our lifetime; but when these doubts and worries become everyday fears that turn into negative automatic thoughts they begin impacting your mental, physical, and emotional health.

Step One: Becoming aware of your negative automatic thoughts.

Becoming aware of your negative automatic thoughts, requires becoming aware of all of your automatic thoughts. The best way to become aware of the automatic thoughts that you have is to record them, so that you can begin to get a bigger picture of what situations and behaviors may cause specific automatic thoughts to happen.

  1. To record your thoughts, get a journal, notebook, or some loose-leaf paper and writing utensils to carry around with you for at least 2 weeks.
  2. Throughout the day, each day, take a mental inventory. What is going on inside your head? Take note of:
    • Date and Time
    • People around you
    • Situation occurring or that has occurred recently
    • How you were feeling before the situation, and how you are feeling currently
    • What your thoughts are about the situation, yourself, and the future
    • How your thoughts may be affecting your feelings and actions

Remember to check in several times a day and record all thoughts and situations, regardless of whether you think they are negative or positive.

Step Two: Evaluating your thoughts and feelings.

After you have collected a good bit of data, you can begin evaluating the thoughts in your journal. Read your entries over and begin looking for a pattern. Ask yourself some of the following questions:

  1. What situations cause me to have positive automatic thoughts?
    • How do these positive automatic thoughts affect how I think and behave during the given situation? How long do these effects last? A half hour? An hour? The rest of the day?
    • How often do I have thoughts like these?
    • Do I believe that these thoughts are truthful and good for me? Do they leave me feeling good about myself? Do they help me? Do they hurt me?
    • How might these thoughts have developed?
    • Do I want to continue having these thoughts, or do I want to change these thoughts?
  2. What situations cause me to have negative automatic thoughts?
    • How do these negative automatic thoughts affect how I think and behave during the given situation? How long do these effects last? A half hour? An hour? The rest of the day?
    • How often do I have thoughts like these?
    • Do I believe that these thoughts are truthful and good for me? Do they leave me feeling good about myself? Do they help me? Do they hurt me?
    • How might these thoughts have developed?
    • Do I want to continue having these thoughts, or do I want to change them?

Step Three: Changing your thoughts.

At this point, you might have a good idea of the types of automatic thoughts you have, which thoughts are good for your mental health, and which thoughts you would like to change. Please remember that the automatic thoughts that you are having now did not become so “automatic” overnight. Changing your thoughts takes time, energy, patience, and most importantly, practice. Though it may be a slow process, it is possible nonetheless.

  1. Create a list in your journal of any and all positive affirmations, positive self-talk, facts, rebuttals, and microencouragements that make you feel confident, motivated, and inspired. Leave this list open so that you can always return to it when you find something inspiring to add.
  2. Start a new page in your journal. Divide it in half.
    • On one side of the divide, write the thought that you have found to be negative, or any thought that you would like to change.
    • On the other side of the divide, offer yourself a rebuttal, a fact, an encouragement, or an affirmation that criticizes or challenges your negative thought.
      • List as many affirmations or rebuttals that apply and help you to reframe the negative automatic thought.
  1. Practice using your positive affirmations, self-talk, and microencouragements daily. Use these affirmations whenever you can to cope with negative automatic thoughts, to give yourself a boost of confidence, and to ensure that these positive thoughts become your new automatic thoughts.

As you move through the steps of thought catching and changing, remember to continue recording thoughts you have. You can begin to reframe any negative thoughts as they happen, reducing the chance that they become automatic thoughts and affect your mental, emotional and physical health.

This is a great exercise to try with the help of a licensed mental health counselor who can help you work through and reframe your negative automatic thoughts, while also addressing any other issues that may come to light. If you would like to speak to a mental health professional, please call our office at (352) 365-2243, Monday-Friday, from 9AM-5PM.

Written by Savannah Achor

References

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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