Is Your Fear Worth Fearing? How to Find Out

SUCCESS magazine is based in a northern suburb of Dallas—and I can read your mind: You’re thinking, “That’s ground zero for Ebola!” On a respected national news show this morning, a banner beneath the anchors’ desk screamed, “Ebola invades the U.S.!” Am I scared for myself and my family? Well, when it was reported that a second health worker at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital was infected, I had a moment of stark terror. Then I did what my journalism background has taught me to do. I looked at the facts.

My family lives in a suburb far from the Dallas hospital or the home of Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who died from Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian. Even if there were a chance encounter between, say, my tween and a symptomatic person, the necessary transaction between bodily fluids and orifices or cut skin is just too unlikely to have occurred. Yes, such a transfer could easily happen in a hospital or infected person’s home. But common sense told me it was extremely unlikely to have happened to me, my husband or my kids.

Ruling out the possibilities reminded me of a cognitive behavioral technique I learned about and which I’ve found helpful in assuaging all kinds of fears. But before I go into it… Ebola is a horrible, tragic disease and in no way does it compare to the kinds of mundane problems I’m about to discuss. I’ve sent as much money as I can afford to Doctors without Borders, and the victims, their families and all who came into contact with the virus are in my family’s prayers.

Onto the anti-stress technique: Let’s take something that happened to a friend of mine that led her to worry herself sick as an example. Miranda is an accomplished paralegal, and recently she was assigned to assist one of her firm’s partners in a high-profile case. The lawyer made her nervous—he was a snooty guy who looked down his nose at most people. When Miranda gets nervous, a childhood stutter returns. It’s no big deal—it has no impact on the excellent work she does. But the lawyer seemed to stare at her, aghast, whenever her stutter emerged, and of course, that only made the stutter worse. Here’s what Miranda said to me when she called me: “Everyone thinks I’m stupid, and I’m afraid I’m going to get fired!”

“Okay,” I (psychologist manqué) said to her. “Let’s take an objective look at what you just said. You said that EVERYONE thinks you’re stupid. Do I think so? Does your mom? Your husband?”

“Of course not,” she snapped at me. “I mean everyone at work.”

“Really?” I said more kindly. “Your boss? Your friend Sasha? Your…”

“Okay,” Miranda snapped. “I guess EVERYONE doesn’t think I’m dumb. Just that stinking partner! And I’m afraid that he’s going to talk to the other partners and get me fired!”

Again I asked her to look to see if any evidence pointed to that possibility. Had she worked for any of the other partners besides her boss, and if she had, had they liked her work? Yes, it turned out. She’d stayed at the office until midnight on numerous occasions doing research for two of the partners. They had been so impressed, they urged her to go to law school, Miranda said. In fact, they had recommended that the stinker use Miranda—and no one else—to help research this case.

So, did Miranda really think this guy could persuade the senior management to fire her butt?

“I guess when you put it that way… nah,” said Miranda.

When you attack your worries with logic, it can be helpful to write the fear at the top of a piece of paper and then to list the evidence for the fear and the evidence against it. So often, the thing we worry about gets caught up in old emotional baggage that has nothing to do with the present situation. I think that’s what happened with Miranda, who was teased for her stutter in elementary school.

Try this with all kinds of relationship or job fears. Sometimes you’ll find cause for concern. But more often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that your insecurities, like flimsy alibis under a detective’s harsh spotlight, quite easily come undone.

Becoming mindful of your anxieties can help you better cope. Check out 11 strategies for managing stress.

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