Paths of Fear:
Events that can trigger our fear or anxiety are common and frequent occurrences. How we respond to those provocations and the choices we make critically affect our peace of mind, wellbeing, and our lives. The following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either prolong or resolve our fears. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to get there, and 4) go down the chosen path.
This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or interaction at any particular time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK” bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.
OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to a person who is relaxed and not feeling fear or anxiety. The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth potential.
Perceived Threat: Something scary happens in your world that you perceive as a threat. This may be seeing a physical threat such as a snake coiling to strike or a car speeding toward you. It may also be a threat to your wellbeing, peace of mind, or social standing. A conceived threat—resulting from contemplating harmful future events—results in anxiety rather than fear.
Fear: Now you are frightened. Your heart is pounding, your breath is short, and your eyes are wide open. Your emotional brain has already begun to respond along two separate paths. The simple, fast, involuntary path causes you to immediately freeze, flee, fight, or focus. The slower but more thoughtful path causes you to feel afraid and allows you to begin to analyze your situation, create alternative responses, and make choices.
Flight: One possible reaction is to escape from the threat. This may be by looking away, running away, or simply ignoring the threat. In any case you are now avoiding the danger, at least for now.
Avoiding: Running away from some threats, such as a car hurling toward you as you walk across the street, is a very effective defense. But this strategy does not often work for more persistent threats, such as receiving a letter from the IRS, seeing a notice to foreclose and repossess your house, or suffering persistent abuse. Denying or avoiding a problem will not make it go away, and sooner or later you will have to confront the issue.
Confront: You decide to face the threat. You can decide to fight, or you can become composed and consider your constructive options.
Composed: You have calmed down, relaxed, gotten a grip on yourself, and now understand the situation in more depth. You have composed yourself and have decided to face the issue and resolve the threat in a rational, long lasting, and constructive way.
Resolve the Threat: Calmly analyze the threat, identify alternative approaches to resolving it, and take courageous and constructive action. This may involve paying the rent, answering the letter from the IRS, or confronting the abuse you are facing.
Relieved: You will feel relieved after the threat has been resolved. Now everything is OK again.
Fight: It is common to respond to a threat by fighting back. This may be a violent physical fight involving yelling, hitting, kicking, and other attacks and defenses. The fight might be passive-aggressive resistance such as refusing to respond and becoming silent. Or it may be an administrative defense such as speaking up for your rights and point of view, filing a complaint, or taking legal action to protect your rights. Of course once you start a fight, you may win, you may lose, or you may spend lots of time fighting.
Fighting: The fight can be short or long, violent and aggressive or passive and subtle, physical or administrative, and you can win or lose. In any case the loser generally feels resentment and humiliation and may retaliate or seek revenge in some new form.
Lose: If you lose the fight, the threat remains and it may have even increased. You are again fearful and you may also be resentful.
Win: If you win the fight, the threat may have been removed, or you may be fueling resentment or humiliation on the part of the loser. But for now you can become composed, relieved, and feel OK.
Focus: Often our fear focuses our senses and attention, first on the threat, then perhaps on possible responses. In either case we become focused on solving the problem.
Focused: When we are focused we are alert and can consider our alternatives. Soon we can comprehend the situation, and become composed so we can resolve the threat.
Freeze: We may freeze when we encounter a threat. This may work well for a deer wishing to blend into the surrounding forest landscape and escape notice from predator. It does not work well when a deer freezes in the headlights of an oncoming car. It also rarely works for people in the modern world.
Immobile: We are frozen and immobile We can’t move and we can’t even think what to do next. We face a critical choice here. We can summon our courage and focus our attention on responding constructively, or we can lose our nerve, become unglued, fall apart, and begin to panic.
Panic: Our heart is beating rapidly, we are out of breath, and we become fixated on the threat. We can not longer think rationally about what to do next. If we don’t get a grip on ourselves and relax this can easily escalate our fears, or begin a long-lasing anxiety.
Anxious: Our mind is racing ahead conceiving of all the bad things that can happen to us. These conceived threats make us anxious and stressed. If we don’t get a grip on ourselves we can become unhinged and suffer from panic attacks, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety.