Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Details of Fear

A definition of terms

Okay, this’ll be the more boring bit of my Fear Series but stay with me. Anxiety is a chronic, and often less acute, form of fear which involves a generalized expectation of danger that leaves the anxious person in a state of heightened tension. While fear involves a ‘fight or flight’ response to a specific threat such as a spider or violent man, anxiety serves the purpose of keeping the person alert to possible dangers. Phobias occur when the fear of a threat is far greater than the actual danger involved. Anxiety disorders occur when the alarm bells keep ringing and don’t let the person relax – forcing them to feel and behave as though they were in constant danger.

Causes of Fear

Both fear and anxiety can be infectious, particularly with children, who are more vulnerable to such experiences. Children look to their parents, or other authority figures, to check if a situation is safe or dangerous. If the adult seems scared of an object, the child is more likely to think twice about going near it. If the adult’s fear reaction becomes frightening in and of itself (screaming, jumping up on tables to avoid it, backing away in utter horror), then the child is even more likely to develop the same fear.

While phobias and anxiety disorders are less likely to occur in adults who see other adults’ afraid, fear in one’s peers can still be scary. Watching a horror movie with someone who laughs and mocks it is obviously not nearly as scary as watching it with someone who is quite plainly scared. When the threat is not immediately obvious, such as a friend who looks over your shoulder with a look of plain terror, the infectious fear becomes far more potent. This can, under the right circumstances and with the right people, lead to hysterical responses as the infectious fear builds to severe levels.

Fear and anxiety can obviously be influenced by bad experiences with the severity of the experience generally, but not always, influencing the degree of the phobia. A dog that mauls your arm is far more likely to give you a phobia of dogs than a dog that barked at you. They can also be affected by the severity of the threat (or at least the perception of it). If you come across a snake that you know is both placid and harmless, you’ll likely have a very different reaction then if you come across the same snake but believe it’s from a highly venomous and aggressive species. Of course, one bad reaction can give all similar creatures a bad rap as most people try to avoid their fears.

Fear can also transform itself and attach itself to related issues. Someone who had a terrifying encounter with the snake (even if the snake itself was placid and non-venomous) might now avoid long grasses and feel unsafe in wilderness gardens because you never know what might be lying in that grass. The fearful person might even largely forget about the snake incident, perhaps because they were exposed to ‘tame’ snakes or because they later found out the snake was perfectly harmless, but are still scared of long grasses because they never dealt with that issue. And besides, what if the next time it’s a poisonous one?

Reactions to Fear
Also, while the fight or flight response gets a loss of press time, I think there is a third behavioral response that is little examined. Sometimes when the anxiety gets too much or you feel so shocked by recent threats that you just shut down and ‘Freeze’ up. You don’t know what to do or where to start. Your heart might race and you might feel all the effects of ‘Fight or Flight’ but you’re stuck between the two and don’t know what to do. This can also occur in response to certain threats, for example peering down from a great height or stumbling onto a snake, where you go absolutely still and couldn’t move for the life of you.

Treatment of Fear

While fear, phobias, and anxiety disorders can all be sparked by bad experiences, they can also be calmed through good experiences. In what is termed ‘exposure therapy’, a person who feels profound anxiety in social groups might be slowly exposed to increasingly large groups of people in a supportive and friendly environment. As each baby step is rewarded with positive treatment and happy experiences, the person generally become less afraid of social groups. This can be a very interesting process to see in novels where people who were too afraid to trust are slowly rewarded for every little show of trust until they feel safe to do so.

Exposure therapy is important to be aware of because it goes doubly for fictional works. While seeing a real life monster that wanted to eat my gizzards wouldn’t make me fear it any less, when I’m watching it on the movie screen and the fear is a much weaker beast, then I will quickly get used to the monster if I see it too often. This is one of the reasons behind the whole ‘Leave the big reveal to the end’ rule. The less we know of a threat, the more alien it seems, and the more our imagination can run away with it. When the threat only exists in our imagination (because we don’t actually need to worry about Geiger aliens showing up on our doorstep) then that’s the most powerful place to keep it – in our imagination.

Exposure Therapy – Not a guarantee

Not every person gains relief by being gradually exposed to their fears or by attempting to transform terrifying experiences into positive ones (such as through re-framing). Even for those who do gain relief, it has generally been found that the same old fears, phobias, and anxieties will flare up again though it’s normally not as bad after successful exposure. How the person reacts to those flare ups, and the repercussions that come from their reaction, will determine if the person can come to terms with their anxiety again or if they will slide back into old habits.

For example, take that interesting set-up with the protagonist who is afraid to trust. In one situation where he (it’s usually a he) is relating a personal story to the romantic interest, he might suddenly grow quite anxious that she’s about to betray him. His pulse starts to race, his finger tips tingle, and he gets the urge to fight to protect himself (hopefully verbally) or even beat a hasty retreat. Now comes the power of interpretation. He might feel the panic and think “oh, dear god, the baggage is back”.

On the other hand, he might think the sudden outburst of anxiety is based on signals that she’s about to betray him. In other words, he might interpret feelings that come from his own memories as something that her body language has triggered in him. Obviously, that interpretation will lead to a harsher reaction – he might even become outright hostile – and odds are she’s not going to know what brought on the sudden change. To make matters worse, in this scenario, he’s just put the ball in her court and how she reacts to this uncertain situation can either fuel the fire or defuse it.

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