Psychologists in Adelaide

Facing our Fears in Psychology: Fear and Anxiety.


A common concern amongst the general population is anxiety. Anxiety is a physiological response that can be broadly recognised by its symptoms of tightened muscles, increased heart rate, trembling, quickened breathing, sweating, and a churning stomach. It’s really not a pleasant experience! Often though, people who present to see a psychologist have difficulties with anxiety that interferes with their everyday life which they want to reduce for obvious reasons. The question is how can we actually do this?

We could teach someone a skill to calm themselves down, like deep breathing. While that may reduce anxiety in the short term, it never challenges the initial fear. If a fearful stimuli is very common, a client may spend all their time having to engage in deep breathing! This is not what we want to achieve as clinicians. For example, if a client is afraid of dogs, we fundamentally have two options; either we reduce the existence of the feared stimuli (dogs) or we increase the client’s tolerance to the feared stimuli (dogs). It’s very hard to rid the world of dogs in a 50 minute session (and some of us love dogs!)

Where does this leave us? Well, at this stage we’re looking at increasing tolerance to dogs. Fundamentally, anxiety is a learnt response by the brain to protect us from danger. This means that if we’ve previously been bitten by a dog, our brain has learnt that dogs are dangerous. This means that every time we may see or imagine a dog, that automatic fear response (anxiety) may be triggered. Our brain is trying to keep us safe based upon previous learning and experiences. The secret to building tolerance is to take advantage of this same learning process to learn that dogs are not dangerous. 

In practice this may mean putting the client in the room with a small Labrador puppy until the fear response subsides, teaching the brain that the small Labrador puppy is not dangerous. This process would be repeated with gradually bigger dogs, until the client is able to sit in a room and pet the biggest German Shephard the clinician can find! As a result, the client’s tolerance to dogs has increased, as their brain has learnt that every time we may see or imagine a dog the previously learnt automatic fear response is not necessary. Thus, anxiety is reduced in the long term. 

All well and good for a fear of dogs you may say, but some fears are more complex than that. People can be scared of many things based upon previous learning and experiences. This may include driving following a scary car crash, or even something as seemingly intangible as your own thoughts and memories. As overwhelming as some of these may seem, fundamentally the learning process the brain has been through to condition the anxiety response is the same. This means that the logic of the therapy remains the same; either we reduce the existence of the feared stimuli, or we increase the client’s tolerance to it. 

Most people want to be able to drive, even if they have experienced a scary car crash, so we may help develop a plan where they begin driving in less scary situations, building up to driving on crowded freeways. Scary thoughts and memories, while unpleasant, are physically unable to hurt us in the present moment. So your clinician may use imagery type exercises to induce the thought or memory and teach you how to sit with it, teaching your brain that it does not need to activate a fear response upon because of a thought or recollection of an event.

All of us have things we’re afraid of; because all of us learn from, and experience the world. The trick is to learn how to face our fears one step at a time. And then things get a bit better ☺