Dr. Rika Tanaka, Ph.D.

Anybody who has been through a haunted house with me knows that I am easily spooked and have a very visceral, highly uncomfortable (for me), and extremely entertaining (for others) reaction to spooky surprises. I would not recommend anyone to purposefully be horrified in this way for a prolonged period. However, as a psychologist, what I appreciate about Halloween is how many of us embrace our sense of fear in the days leading up to this holiday. From my perspective, a healthy level of fear can be adaptive—and perhaps something that is worth celebrating and embracing long after the candy bowls empty out and the jack-o-lanterns are thrown away.

Acknowledging and understanding how fear works can be a critical first step in coping with stress and anxiety throughout the year. Here are three aspects fear and anxiety that are important to understand when looking to strengthen our abilities to cope.

It Is Natural. We are hard-wired to feel all of our uncomfortable emotions, including fear. The tension in our shoulders, the pit in our stomachs, the sweat accumulating in our pores, and the strong pounding of our chests—these are our bodies’ natural responses to stress, anxiety, and fear. While every person may not show fear or anxiety in the same way, it is important to note that we all have mechanisms in our bodies to let us know when we are scared. Acknowledging fear and anxiety as a natural biological reaction can be incredibly normalizing and validating and help us to loosen our grip on the judgments we make about our experiences of stress or anxiety as they arise.

It Keeps Us Safe. From an evolutionary perspective, fear and anxiety play an important role in keeping us safe. The parts of our brains and bodies that are triggered when we are frightened were developed to help us react to danger (e.g. saber-toothed tigers) efficiently and effectively. Fear tells us that we need to look around, assess our environment, and behave differently (e.g. fight or flee) to stay safe. For example, without fear, we would not look both ways before crossing the street or call our doctors when we are sick. Reminding ourselves of anxiety’s role in keeping us safe, can take away the pressure we might feel to push this uncomfortable feeling away and give us space to gather important information about how best to move forward in a way that we may otherwise miss.

It Can Help Us Thrive. Understanding our fears can not only keep us from danger, but it can also help us thrive. Adaptive coping requires us to listen effectively to our emotions—both the comfortable and uncomfortable—to understand what we need and want. For example, fear and anxiety can tell us that we need to gather important information, set healthy boundaries, and adjust our plans in ways that may not otherwise be apparent. Being honest with ourselves about what scares us and taking the time to examine these fears can give great insight in to how we can take care of our health and well-being in more meaningful and effective ways.

Of course, learning how to embrace fear can be difficult, especially if you are already feeling overwhelmed or stuck. Extreme levels of fear and anxiety can make it difficult to assess situations, make decisions, and effectively communicate needs. Moreover, it can be difficult to know exactly what level of anxiety is “adaptive” for you. A trained mental health professional can work with you to better understand your fears and help manage your anxieties in ways that bolster your ability to cope and thrive, no matter what ghosts and goblins come your way.

Dr. Rika Tanaka, Ph.D. (PSY30925) is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Coronado Psych, a psychology private practice in Coronado, CA. As a resident of Coronado and an expert therapist herself, Dr. Tanaka’s mission is to increase accessibility to the highest-quality mental health services to Coronado and the broader San Diego community. Coronado Psych’s expert team of therapists are dedicated to providing the most effective psychological services to clients of all ages (e.g. children, adolescents, young adults, adults, and seniors) and are currently accepting new clients. For more information about the services provided at Coronado Psych, please feel free to call (619-554-0120), email (info@coronadopsych.com), or visit their website at www.coronadopsych.com, to learn more.

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