It's that time of year again to be afraid! I'm not talking about the election cycle, I'm talking about Halloween! Be afraid! Boo!
According Panksepp's research, fear is a raw emotional state that is present at birth and shaped by our lived experiences. Our perception of the present moment and how we think about the future is dependent on past experiences that have shaped our biological system. Repeated experiences of fear can imprint on the brain as states of mind, thus becoming phobias. Think of it this way: fear is the body's alarm system for danger. Take a fire for example. Fire is good: it warms us, cooks our food, and gives us light. But, we know instinctively when we get to close there is some inherent danger to fire. If we touch it, it burns and we can get seriously hurt. Also, it can grow quickly out of control and even cause death and destruction. So, in the future we keep a safe distance. If you have a child who is constantly reminded that fire is dangerous, they can develop and unhealthy fear of fire. Now, take that same child and expose them to a house fire or a wildfire where everyone was safe, but it was dangerous nonetheless. The past, coupled with the present experience shapes their anticipation of the future. They may be susceptible to panic attacks when they hear about a fire, smell smoke, or see fires on TV. Fear of fire has become a "characteristic trait" or phobia and impacting their day to day life.
Again, it's Halloween season, so it's the time of year to "dose" our fear with all the decorations, and spooky stories. Dosing our experiences allow us to gain mastery over our fear of __________ (insert whatever you are afraid of here) in a way that gives us confidence and helps us develop a new view of the future. In EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy it is called "dual awareness". Dual awareness is the ability for a client to re-experience a negative event while staying grounded in the present moment. Once again, I'll take Halloween as an example. A child might say to themselves, "I remember how scared I was last Halloween when I saw ___________ (insert scary decoration here). This year I know I am safe because my parents and friends are here to protect me." Because of the dual awareness processing, next year the child might even think that same decoration is silly. Now, they have reshaped how they will think about Halloween in the future. Parents can help their children master fear by providing appropriate scaffolding. Keep a watchful eye on distress signals from your child. When things appear too scary and stressful, connect with them to provide comfort and a compassionate response. Name calling, minimizing, or neglecting to connect to your child during these critical moment can add reaffirm their negative state of mind.
If you would like to know what good scaffolding looks like in the Bible, the Lord tells Isaiah "...Do not fear, for I am always with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your god. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." Isaiah 41:10.
Tracy Kristoff, MA, MFT, RPT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist