Navigating, Confronting, and Embracing: How Exposure May Help Eradicate Fears

Oct 29, 2019

The list of all possible fears and phobias seems to go on forever. An estimated 9.1% (19 million) U.S. adults have at least one phobia. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss fear and why it might be better to embrace fear than avoid it.

"It turns out that fear has some useful psychological properties," Bordieri explains. "In fact, fear is really one of our keys to survival. If we think about the evolutionary origin of humans and what role fear plays in survival, it's key. The heart of fear is our body's natural fight or flight system...in our fancy scientific terms, we talk about something called the sympathetic nervous system. It's a branch of [the] brain and larger neurons throughout the body that activate in ways to get the body prepared for threat. So fear is incredibly adaptive when we are in situations that call for running, fighting, hiding, sort of addressing with an immediate concern."

Bordieri uses the example of a grizzly bear barging into the WKMS studio and the body's natural physical reactions to that happening. "Things like, for example, sweating or increasing your heartbeat, breathing more rapidly, those are all useful adaptations to have our body operate at peak performance. If we need to outrun a grizzly bear, we need our heart pumping, we need to be sweating to cool down our skin, we need all those things to survive," Bordieri says. "So it's great. Except for maybe when fear shows up in places we don't necessarily like it to." 

"That's another thing about fear," Bordieri continues. "We've evolved as humans to learn fear really easily. Think about learning calculus or geometry, things we struggle to learn in school. We can think about fear as really the opposite. Fear is so easy, even babies can learn it. We've evolved in ways that let us learn to fear things very quickly because that's adaptive. That functions for us, but it also means that in our modern world, we can easily acquire fear of things that really don't require that response. Where that activation, attention, and arousal don't necessarily work for us the way it does when an actual threat is present."

"One thing is that fear, or sometimes what we experience, can be uncomfortable -- but some of it is a state of mind. Think about this, it's almost Halloween. We go to haunted houses, we seek out thrill-seeking rides, so in some contexts, we actually seek out and enjoy fear. Seeing a scary movie. But one of those keys there is most of those [situations] are willing. We're choosing them, and there's some degree of controllability. We can step off at any time. I think where it becomes really challenging psychologically is when it shows up in places in our life we aren't expecting it and don't want it and don't feel like we have a sense of how to control it or what it is," Bordieri explains. 

While the modern world makes it increasingly easier for individuals to develop life-hindering fears, it has become all the more necessary to learn how to adapt to and confront one's fear(s). This can be counterintuitive and difficult, but it can also be worth the discomfort. 

"Most fears...can be adaptive at some level," Bordieri says. "But here's the crux of it. We don't like feeling fear, we don't like feeling uncomfortable, and so we tend to avoid or push away any sort of situations that might get us upset or scared. That makes sense, right? Why would we willingly make our lives more difficult than they already need to be? The problem is, when it comes to fear, the more we avoid it or push it away, typically, the stronger it gets. That's the cycle that really can turn fear of something fun or fear of something adaptive into fear and anxiety...that really becomes a problem in our lives. Maybe there's an opportunity in Halloween to kind of think about 'are there places of our lives that are off-limits? That maybe the fear doesn't match the actual gravity of the situation?' Some things, you're right. Absolutely fear is adaptive. But [fears] like clowns or other things like that...maybe we could learn something new if we spent a little time interacting with that stuff."

Facing fears through exposure therapy can be useful for "non-functional fears," which Bordieri describes as "fears that interfere with our lives." "Being afraid of spiders is totally fine," Bordieri explains. "But if it gets to the point where you can't go on a picnic, you can't go camping with your family, you can't go outside and eat on the patio with the rest of your family, that would be the time we'd say, 'hey, maybe we should do something about it.' Same thing with snakes or whatever it might be. Not liking something's fine, but if the not liking or being afraid of it sort of takes over part of your life or limits where you can go in the world, that could be the time to explore the idea of kind of reclaiming your life from those fears."

As disconcerting as getting up close and personal with one's biggest fears might sound, this form of therapy isn't an aggressive confrontation with fears a la Fear Factor. "We want people to willingly choose it," Bordieri says. "The goal of exposure therapy isn't to just force people into these scary situations. It's to let them choose it, and it's also so they can learn something new. The old way of thinking about exposure was that it just got rid of fear, but I think as we're doing more research, we're really discovering that exposure tends to work because we learn new things, not because we got rid of something old. Our mind doesn't really work by subtraction. We don't take things away, we just learn new things."

"If you've avoided snakes for all your life, spending some time with them, you might learn they're not going to do all the things you expect," Bordieri continues. "A lot of things our mind tells us about scary things may not actually be what happens in the world. There's this idea of something called an expectancy violation. We sort of set up what our anxiety, our mind, tells us will happen, and then we actually learn that maybe it doesn't happen that way. Or even if it does, maybe it isn't as bad as we think it will be. Even if the spider crawls towards you, it's uncomfortable, it's on your skin -- but it turns out that catastrophic event you think will occur probably won't happen. We learn new things, we learn how to be more flexible in those situations where fear kind of keeps us rigid and contained."

"That's another piece of fear. We've evolved that when a threat is present, we really shut down and focus only on that thing. When there's a grizzly bear in the room, we're not daydreaming. We're not thinking about what we might want for dinner, who we want to be in the world, the next podcast we're going to listen to. We call this something called condition suppression. It's a behavioral effect. When there's aversive or things that are scary in our environment, all our behavioral flexibility goes away. We become very rigid and very focused on just the threat and ways to get rid of the threat. That's adaptive, that's great -- if a threat's there. But with fear as it grows and builds to things that maybe aren't objectively dangerous, we start losing our flexibility in the world. Playing around a little with this idea of fear and being willing, in safe and small but meaningful ways, to kind of play around and learn something new about what we fear might actually help us be more flexible in the world and give us opportunities to go places and do things that maybe our minds have made off-limits," Bordieri concludes.