August brings with it so many inevitabilities… going to school for the first time, going back to school, going to new schools, sending kids to college, becoming empty nesters, preparing for winter, etc. August and change seem inextricably linked just like change is inextricably linked to fear for most of us.
Treating fear like a fever
Frustrating as it can be, our bodies are designed to instinctively respond to change with some level of fear. When the brain encounters new or unknown circumstances it assumes there is potential danger and kicks into “fight or flight” mode. This instinctual response places the body “on alert” and physiologically prepares us to either flee the situation or fight off the potential danger. This is extremely helpful if I encounter a rattle snake while walking in the woods or a car veers into my lane of traffic as I am driving down the road. It is not as helpful when the change is weeks away and poses no inherent threat to my life (most of us know that, although middle school seemed life threatening, it wasn’t). Add to this the fact children are literally incapable of accurately assessing which situations pose lethal danger and you have the set-up for fear to run rampantly out of control as families face the changes August brings.
All emotions, including fear, give us information about what is going on internally and/or externally. Emotions function like a fever. When a person’s body temperature is within the “normal” range, this is one measure showing nothing is seriously wrong with the body.
The same is true with emotions. When we are in the “okay” emotional range, this signals nothing is seriously upsetting either internally or externally. When a person spikes a temperature, the fever signals something is wrong either externally (the individual is outdoors in direct sunlight for too long) or internally (the individual has an infection somewhere in their body). Intense emotions work the same way—they signal something needs to be attended to either internally or externally.
What does the emotion of fear signal?
- Potential danger – Back to that rattlesnake in the woods …
- Potential loss – Your child is leaving home and your relationship with each other is changing
- Lack of an action plan– Going to school for the first time
- Potential lack of sufficient skills for the situation – Such as singing in front of a large group of people
When someone has a fever, you don’t tell them to “get over it” or “forget about it.” Rather, you work to identify the source of the fever and solve the problem.
The same should be true when we experience fear. Instead of saying, “this is stupid” or “get over it, you’re fine,” it is important to understand what the fear is signaling and create a plan to address whatever the fear is attempting to expose.
What’s the worst that could happen?
One way to identify the function of the fear is to ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” The answer to this question helps determine what the fear is attempting to expose. Ask a young adult going to a new school for the first time, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
You will get answers like:
• I could get lost.
• I won’t be able to get my locker open.
• I will get made fun of.
• I will flunk out.
• I won’t know anyone and will end up without friends.
Creating a plan to manage fear
Each answer needs a plan and the key to any successful plan includes a willingness to tolerate the worst case scenario happening.
If my biggest fear in going to a new school is getting lost, I need to have a plan for how to deal with this (I will tour the school and find all of my classes the week before. If I still get lost, I will ask the first teacher I see to help me). I also need to be willing to tolerate the fact I might get lost. Having a plan lowers the chances of my worst case scenario happening.
If I know I can survive my worst case scenario happening even though it will be uncomfortable, then the fear won’t be able to overwhelm or consume me. If I am unwilling to tolerate my worst case scenario happening or I believe I cannot survive it, then the fear is going to continue signaling to me that I have a problem in need of a solution and this will make life rather unbearable.
Change inevitably creates some fear, but this doesn’t mean we have to be consumed by the fear. Making a plan and knowing we can survive – even if our worst case scenario happens – helps us live anticipating new things instead of fearfully dreading them.
Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW has been providing outpatient therapy services since 1995 when she earned her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa. She has worked for Pine Rest since 1997. She currently serves as manager of the Telehealth Clinic and the Hastings Clinic and is also a Pine Rest Outpatient Regional Director.