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When Fear for Your Safety Becomes Your Prison: Learning to Let Go and Live Again

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans are killed or injured in accidents, and thousands more become victims of violent crime. Our daily papers are filled with terrible stories of murder, rape, armed robbery, carjackings, and fatal car crashes, while television news program directors in search of ratings are dedicated to the grim motto “if it bleeds, it leads.” Scary statistics and horrifying anecdotes aside, however, the truth is that most of the time in most situations we are perfectly safe, and the chances of anything really bad happening are minimal – not entirely non-existent, but minimal. The lifespan of the average American is now just a shade under 78 years, which is a figure we would not have been able to reach if people were routinely falling victim to accident or violent crime. Nevertheless, it is always wise to take precautions when we are out in public, especially if we live in metropolitan areas where crime rates are higher and traffic is heavier. But for some people, being careful and cautious can become a way of life, so much so that it becomes almost impossible for them to leave the house because they are so paralyzed by worry and fear. And when they do go out, they are so concerned about all of the bad things that could conceivably happen that it is impossible for them to feel comfortable or to enjoy themselves. There is no specific name for this type of phobia, perhaps because the out-of-proportion sense of fear is not focused on any particular threat or circumstance. What is experienced is a more general feeling of dread or impending doom that leaves sufferers tied up in knots of anxiety. Over time, this vague and undefined fear can degenerate into full-blown agoraphobia, and a person so afflicted may lose her freedom permanently as she literally becomes a prisoner in her own home. But things do not have to reach this extreme stage. Those who suffer from excessive fear for their safety and security can overcome this problem, and things can return to the way they were before small molehills of concern turned into the Himalayas of irrational anxiety and panic.

A Five Point Plan for Recovery

It must be stressed that what we are talking about here is not Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People who suffer from PTSD have a very specific condition that requires specialized treatment based on their unique personal histories of trauma and tragedy. The sort of fear we have been discussing is not actually connected to any dramatic or life-changing event; instead, it is based on an extreme self-consciousness that is obsessively focused on all the bad things that could happen, rather than on what really has. If we were going to give this condition a name, we might call it ATSD, which would stand for Anticipatory-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People with this disorder are so worried about what might happen that they develop disabling symptoms associated with trauma survival before anything terrible has actually occurred. Essentially, what we have been describing is an obsessive-compulsive condition based on faulty inner dialogue. In other words, sufferers talk themselves into being anxious and stressed, and at a certain point things take on a life of their own and the anxiety becomes so persistent and so intense that it is no longer controllable. But there is good news – victims who spiral downward in this way can re-train their minds to see things more clearly and from a much healthier perspective, if they are willing to try a five-pronged approach that contains the following elements:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT combines self-initiated mental re-training with gradual exposure to the situations that have been causing a person to experience dread and anxiety. Those working with a therapist who practices CBT will learn how to challenge their irrational fears by re-framing their internal dialogues, and only after noticeable changes in mindset and attitude have begun to manifest will these patients be asked to start exposing themselves purposely to the actual circumstances that have been causing their fearful responses.
  • Relaxation exercises – deep breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga, and any other techniques that can help a person cultivate a calmer and more relaxed persona are highly recommended. The positive effects of such practices will eventually start to carry over into a broad range of situations, including those that have tended to cause a person to experience extreme anxiety in the past.
  • A re-definition of the quest for good mental health as a Hero’s Journey – the Hero’s Journey is one of the most enduring themes of mythology. A man or woman sets out on some kind of meaningful personal quest, and in overcoming the obstacles they face they discover an inner strength and determination they never knew they possessed. For those who suffer from phobias, overcoming them will probably be the greatest challenge they will ever face in their lives, and as they progress they should recognize this and acknowledge the enormity of what they are accomplishing. Giving yourself credit for your accomplishments, no matter what they might be, is an important part of building your self-image up to the point where you really can begin to achieve your goals and dreams, even if they may have seemed impossible in the past.
  • Strategies of distraction – negative self-talk inevitably makes fear-causing situations worse, so when someone who is obsessed with everything bad that could happen is out and about they must find other things to occupy their minds. Any sort of inner narrative that is interesting or meaningful to a particular person can work, it just has to be something positive that has no relationship to issues of security or safety.
  • A full commitement to a healthy lifestyle – a balanced and nutritious diet, regular exercise, good sleeping habits, the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, etc. Cultivating positive habits such as these will help transform the entire mind-body system, and they will help a person suffering from a phobia by giving them the energy, resiliency, and optimism they so desperately need as they attempt to overcome their deepest fears once and for all.

None of these suggestions is likely to solve the problem if practiced in isolation. But if those who are paralyzed by constant anxiety and worry over their personal safety are willing to confront this situation head on by utilizing a multifaceted plan of attack, there is a very good chance that they will eventually be able to overcome their irrational and excessive fear and return to a more hopeful and optimistic way of living.

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