What Are You Afraid Of? A Guide to Dealing with Your Worst Fears

Everyone has fears and phobias. But are yours normal -- or not? We asked experts to weigh in with a diagnosis.
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The Roots of Our Fears

During these tough times you may feel as though you've lost some of your coping skills, allowing your concerns, quirks, and strange little habits to bubble to the surface. If you're not careful, you can even end up worrying about your worry. But take heart: Whatever you're feeling or doing, someone else is, too. We promise. Probably a lot of people. And getting your fears out in the open is the first step to understanding and, ultimately, conquering them. So we ran some common scenarios by top experts for their big-picture advice.

"Lately I'm increasingly reluctant to go out. It's just more safe and comfy to stay home. My husband's worried about me, but what's the big deal?"

Clear distinctions between normal behavior (I prefer to stay home) and ones that require professional help (I can't leave home) are often hard to find. But one bold indicator is what the people who love you think. Your husband's worry is a red flag. At the very least, it'd be worth asking what concerns him -- and really listening to what he has to say.

As to what's the root cause, there are two possibilities depending on your answer to the question, "What's unsafe about going outside?" Is there a specific place out there you're avoiding? Could it be something bad that happened to you recently: a traumatic experience at work, a car accident? Identifying that and addressing the problem with the help of your husband or a therapist could really help, says psychiatrist Jennifer Yashari, MD, a clinical instructor at UCLA.

If everything beyond your door seems dangerous, you may have agoraphobia, or fear of crowded public or vast open spaces. For many people the real fear is having a panic attack in a public space where they have no control. This can be a serious and debilitating problem and you should see a therapist to discuss treatment options.

"I can't sleep. I worry about us losing our jobs, losing the house, not being able to pay for our kids' college. How I can get some peace -- and some rest?"

First, don't beat yourself up for worrying. We've been barraged by bad economic news for months and months -- of course you're worried! "But recognize that those endless reports of bad news can make it easy to go from having healthy concerns (I could lose my job and should consider other possible ways to make money) to psychologically creating your own catastrophic future (I am going to lose everything!)," says Amanda Baten, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City.

Dr. Baten suggests you ride the "what-if" train. What if you do lose your job? Well? (A) the earth won't implode, and (B) you can probably figure out a way to survive -- such as doing consulting work, learning new job skills, changing fields, or even moving in with your mom and dad. Having a contingency plan can pull you out of the panic trap.

If you've lost sleep over these worries for a long time, however, it could be something more serious, says Dr. Yashari. Ask yourself: Are you consumed by this for hours a day? Is it impairing your work or relationships? Do you also have any physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, sweating, muscle tension, or panic attacks? Even one little "yes" to any of those questions means you should talk to a doctor. You may have a generalized anxiety disorder. The right treatments could make a world of difference, offering both the peace and the rest you deserve.

Continued on page 2:  More Common Fears

 

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