The Price of Fear

We suffered a national tragedy last month, in the form of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Hundreds of families are in shock and grieving because everything that they thought they knew about their lives changed in seconds that Wednesday. Today, Wednesday 3/14/28, students across the country are planning school walk-outs in protest and remembrance.

Social media - that amalgam of the best and worst of humanity - has exploded with outpourings of sympathy, efforts to raise money and assist the suffering, thoughts and prayers, and anger. So much anger. Lying unacknowledged beneath most of what I see people posting, though, is fear.

I've been trying to write this post for a month now, and every time I sit down to do it I just get stuck. I have such strong feelings and opinions about what's happened and what needs to happen, but the issues are so personal to me that I find myself gridlocked with emotion. I come from a family of public-school teachers. My mother, father, aunt, grandmother, sister, sister-in-law and husband are all public school teachers, and we move in circles filled with teachers. I was raised in classrooms. Teacher talk was a daily ritual growing up and it continues to be a daily conversation with my husband. My brother and I are the oddballs who didn't go into teaching directly, but we've still managed to find a niche in our careers where we do an awful lot of educating and leading.

Thinking about the epidemic of gun violence in our schools takes my breath away. With so many of my loved ones in the schools, these acts of horror are so personal, so close. Any one of my family or friends could be those teachers who have given their lives to save their students. The story of Scott Beigel, the geography teacher who was killed at Parkland, is particularly terrifying to me. He was shot while trying to get students out of the hall and into his classroom so he could lock them in and protect them. Instead, he died in front of their eyes.

That could have been my husband, or my sisters, or my friends. It makes me sick to my stomach every time I think about it. All they want to do is to help children learn, but that is getting harder and harder with each passing school year.

Fear, like all emotions, just happens; it's not something we can control. Fear is a protective emotion. It triggers the fight, flight or freeze response: a boost from our sympathetic nervous system that floods our brains and bodies with neurotransmitters and cascades of chemicals that prepare us to respond to life-threatening situations. Fear can help us fight off an attacker, run from a fire, or stay still to allow our minds to disassociate from the trauma our bodies are experiencing in order to save our sanity. 

But when we perceive a threat that isn't there it can be incapacitating. Old traumas can cause us to live in a constant state of unresolved fear. Our negative beliefs about the world and the  people in it can cause us to fear others who don't look, sound, or act like we do. And our fears stoked by tragedy lead to outpourings of grief, anger, indignation and self-righteous proselytizing. But chronic fear has distinct, negative effects on people mentally and physically, often contributing to problems sleeping or eating, intensifying or creating chronic pain, weight fluctuation, depression, anxiety, hypertension, and the list goes on and on. Living in a state of fear is miserable and devastating to our health.

The price of fear is often greed and pettiness, but sometimes the miraculous happens and fear breeds action, strength, and energy instead. I have been in awe of the eloquence of the teenagers who have been speaking out in response to the most recent school shooting. But predictably, some have attacked these young people for being so vocal. What's interesting to me is that in those attacks I hear fear. The criticism sounds like bravado, but what they're really saying is, "I'm afraid that you will cause changes in my life that I'm uncomfortable with." In the culture of the US we don't accept fear terribly well. It's too vulnerable, too raw. We prefer anger. Anger is acceptable and safe. Anger pushes people away from us. It's energizing. Fear means having to show our soft underbellies, and for the most part that's culturally unacceptable.

There are ways to treat the fear of old traumas, and my favorite is EMDR. (We'll talk about that in depth at some point because it is such an incredible treatment for trauma.) Facing fear in our daily lives requires a different set of skills, though, and there a lot of treatment modalities to address it.  I like to use a variety of approaches with clients, based on their needs, but Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy is a good one for fear because it helps you identify the emotional experience causing your fear as well as the automatic negative thoughts and beliefs that fuel them. I also find that a good dose of existential therapy is helpful in facing our fears. Knowing your purpose can give you the drive to feel your fear, but keep going. However, if you're living with chronic fear it's really important to speak to a mental health professional because there are so many ways to approach healing our fears, and it helps to have someone guide you through that process. If you need something to get you through while you're finding a therapist in your area to work with, try some therapeutic journaling. Using a notebook or computer, or some sheets of paper, answer the following questions:

  • What's the worst that can happen?
  • Will counting or breathing make this fear better?
  • Is what I'm afraid of realistic?
  • How likely is it that what I'm afraid of will actually happen?
  • Is there anything within my own power that I can do to prevent X fear from happening?
  • Do I feel this fear in my body? Where?

You can also start a meditation practice, which has evidence-based positive effects on reducing fears. Insight Timer is a meditation app for your phone to which I am completely devoted, and it's free and available for iPhone and Android. It will help you get started if meditating is something foreign to you.

Finding ways to turn fear into something expansive instead of something limiting is an important part of growing well. If teenagers (and teachers) need to walk out of schools, or organize marches, or take to social media to turn their fear into fire, then I support them in that. My own fear for the safety of my teacher loved-ones is quieted by my belief that they are answering a calling, and that most days they are just trying to fight the system and help kids grow. But my fears for them are also a slow, hot ember that motivates me to work for change. No one should wonder if they're going to die at school. Schools are sacred spaces of learning, and we must do whatever it takes to keep them that way.


*Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash