Managing Fear

The following is an article based on People Are Animals Too, Darnit! Podcast with guest Eric Ridgway, LCPC.

Understanding and recognizing how fear plays a role in our lives and the lives of the community members we serve

It may seem overly simple, but humans have five basic categories of emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear and shame. 

In a previous episode of “People Are Animals Too, Darnit!” Panhandle Animal Shelter Executive Director Mandy Evans spoke with licensed clinical professional counselor Eric Ridgway about understanding these emotions in order to communicate more effectively with others. 

Ridgway joined Evans on the podcast again to delve deeper into one of the emotional categories—fear.  

Fear Isn’t Bad

No emotions, even fear, are inherently “bad”—it’s how you manage and deal with them that is important. 

“If people think about any of the emotions as negative, they’re really limiting their perception and their ability to deal with their own lives,” said Ridgway. 

Fear can keep us safe by preventing us from driving too fast on icy roads or going rock climbing without a rope.

“For most people, fear is going to help them stay alive,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

However, fear doesn’t serve us well when it’s causing us to worry about something like a meteorite coming to strike us at any moment, he said. 

Fear has also long been used to manipulate people. An obvious example is bullying on a playground, but it happens more subtly in advertising, sales and the media, said Ridgway.

What ads essentially do is play on people’s fears that they won’t be as cool, good-looking, likable, happy or some other desirable quality if they don’t buy the product. The news media also often gets the public’s attention by using headlines and covering stories that raise fear and public alarm.  

Reacting to Fear

When people feel fear, they don’t tend to admit it, or even recognize it. Instead, they often become angry.

“Humans want to feel powerful and in control so they can predict and control the environment around them, and if we don’t feel powerful, if we don’t feel in control, things can be overwhelming and scary,” said Ridgway. “If we can dominate the situation … then we don’t feel so threatened.”

However, hiding fear, especially with anger, isn’t productive. 

Instead, it makes it “hard for people to work together to make a better world,” he said. 

An important step to managing fear is first recognizing it, and asking yourself what you’re feeling.

“If people don’t know what they’re feeling, I’m guessing it’s fear or shame most of the time,” said Ridgway. “Those are the emotional categories that we are easiest able to deny … because they’re so uncomfortable.”

Notice how your body feels when you’re scared, anxious or uncertain—are your shoulders tense, do you have a pit in your stomach, or is your jaw clenched? Try to calm yourself. Take a deep breath, relax, and tell yourself there is no immediate threat.

“If a lion jumps out, my body is designed to fire up the adrenaline so I can run real fast and get away,” said Ridgway. “But if there are no lions right now, I may not want adrenaline flooding through my body as if I’m about to die.”

Focus on the here and now, and take things one step at a time, he said.

“We have an influence on our emotions, and we can feed them and make them bigger or we can starve them and make them smaller,” he said.

Fear as a Barrier to Seeking Help

Applied in an animal welfare context, it’s important to understand that fear—along with shame—can keep people with limited financial means from seeking help for their pets, even if there are low-cost services available. 

First, if you’re not financially stable, you probably experience fear related to that. 

If someone is constantly worrying about being able to feed their children, or their car breaking down and affording to repair it, they’re going to have high levels of fear, said Ridgway.

“Our brain wants us to survive,” said Ridgway. “If there is a threat to our survival, the brain is going to have a fear reaction to that.”

This insecurity probably also makes someone feel shame. Shame is self-doubt, the feeling that other people might not like you or that you aren’t good enough.

“The more insecurity we have, whether it’s economic or about my profession, my education, my intellect … we can worry about others judging us more,” said Ridgway. 

That means you’re less likely to want to make yourself vulnerable and put yourself in a situation where someone can judge you for not taking your pet in for veterinary care sooner. 

This creates a vicious cycle, noted Evans. 

“They’re scared to put themselves out there and feel vulnerable, then we shame them for showing their vulnerability, and then we get mad at them for not seeking help again, but why would they?” said Evans. “…It’s actually a really privileged view when you’re able to say you ‘should have’ done this.”

“Should” is the shaming word, said Ridgway. When you say someone “should have” done something, you’re taking the stance that you know better.

“That is setting up a scenario of fear, because nobody wants to be judged. It is a basic human desire to feel secure, to feel valued, to feel appreciated, to feel belonging,” he said. “As soon as we start ‘should-ing’ on other people, they’re feeling like they don’t fit in.”

The next time you’re about to ‘should’ someone, consider your own emotions and why you’re judging them—maybe it’s related to your own fear or shame. 

“Fear serves a purpose, but am I a fear-based person?” said Ridgway. “… If we want to make the world a better place, fear is not what’s going to lead us most effectively to work well with others.”