On my daily walk to work last year, I passed a car repair allotment with a chain link gate closing in the property. My whole life I have been wary and hesitant around dogs, and the owner of this repair business had one; spotted gray and black with striking blue eyes. The problem was, for the first few months every time I walked past the gate, she would bolt up from where she lay, and start barking viciously at me. My heart would instantly catapult into overdrive and a rush of panic would start coursing through my body even though I knew she was locked behind the gate. Once I was safely past, I would become angry with myself for the instantaneous reaction that I couldn’t seem to control.
After a few months of this frustration, I finally called my mom on the phone and asked, “Did something happen to me involving a dog when I was little?” And it turns out that when I was really young, I had some frightening experiences with barking dogs. It made complete sense that my reaction was triggered by a dog’s bark. Once I was able to identify the root of this fear, I was able to start a journey towards managing it. I started saying good morning to the dog, and making eye contact with her. I made sure she heard my voice before she saw me, so that I wouldn’t surprise her. After a few more months, she no longer barked at me and sometimes when barking at others on the sidewalk, would even stop when she saw me. Though I would still say that I am a bit on edge around dogs, I am much less afraid, and I have learned to calm myself and manage that fear. I no longer let it control me, or spiral out of proportion.
My experience with the dog last year started a personal journey into fear diagnoses where I deeply examined the roots of what I feared. I was easily able to pinpoint the rational fears that came from negative experiences connected directly to those things. But what fascinated me the most were what I call shadow fears, the fears that I couldn’t completely define or link to any cause or event. And these, I believe, developed as a result of societal fear conditioning.
Brainconnection.com explains fear conditioning as “…a form of classical conditioning, the type of associative learning pioneered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. It involves the repeated pairing of a non-threatening stimulus such as a light, called the conditioned stimulus, with a noxious stimulus such as a mild shock, called the unconditioned stimulus, until the animal shows a fear response not just to the shock but to the light alone, called a conditioned response.”
We live in a terrified society. And more than that, we live in a society that is so afraid of the “what ifs” that we sometimes create false realities triggered by certain words and by certain people.
There are many politically and socially charged trigger words. They are stimuli that illicit reactions based on our socialization. Most people have no real basis for their fear other than the media and politics. We have taken groups of people, events, and ideas and made them the light that precedes the shock. We now fear what comes before the uncomfortable. And this can so quickly spiral out of control when triggers are connected to other triggers.
For many people, myself included, these triggers also make me angry. Does the anger stem from outrage at the circumstances, or does it stem from fear? And I think this is an incredibly important question to ask. I say that I hate spiders, but what I really mean is that I fear them. I fear the harm they have the potential to cause me. Even though very few spiders are poisonous to people, I end up classifying them all together. I have never been bitten by a spider, but I am still afraid because at one point, I was taught to be afraid. I don’t like the way they create that fear in me, and the way it feels and so I start to hate them. This is so dangerous. We have to learn to separate hate from fear.
But even before we do that, we have to know where our fear comes from. We have to identify our shadow fears and try to deduce where they originated. Did they come through a message in the media? A message from the people in our community? Who told us to be afraid, and why haven’t we questioned these fears before? Why is our first reaction to believe in this fear and can we disprove it?
I am insistent on living a life that questions fear. Even in just a year of intentionally practicing this for myself, I have become so liberated from many things that used to control parts of my conscious thought. This year’s political environment was, and still is, overrun by fear. Fear conditioning. Intentional fear mongering. Fear exploitation.
And this works really well because fear is incredibly effective. At least until it’s questioned.
It’s true, not all fear is irrational. Not all fears can be, or need to be, overcome. But at the very least, we all need to ask why. We need to know why we are afraid and where it comes from.
And when we start to challenge fear, we begin the journey of separating ourselves from the greatest force that can separates us from others.
May you be filled with peace and understanding,