A man drove a rented van down a Toronto sidewalk Monday, killing 10 people. Last month, a bomber terrorized Austin with a series of apparently random attacks that killed two people and injured four. These and other incidents we hear about in the news can elicit a variety of emotional responses, including fear.
So, how do people process and manage that response, especially when it can feel like there are frightening things in the news every day?
"Fear is future-based," says Junice Rockman, a clinical psychotherapist and licensed professional counselor intern. "Most of our suffering comes from the stories that we create and the power that we give them and then our reactions to them, not so much the events or even the ideas themselves. It's the stories that we create."
Both she and her husband, author Rock Rockman, say staying present and connected to reality instead of inflating those stories can help keep fear at bay. But, as Rock says, some fear is inevitable.
"There are certain types of fear where like, if you're standing in front of a black bear about to swing his paw at you, that's a real fear," he says. "There are ways to survive that, but then there are some situations where there is not a lot that you can do."
The Rockmans say it's important to determine which situations are controllable and which ones aren't. They also emphasize the importance of finding a balance between preparing for the future without "catastrophizing" what could happen down the road.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Junice Rockman: Most of our suffering comes from the stories that we create and the power that we give them and then our reactions to them – not so much the events or even the ideas themselves. It's the stories that we create, the imagination and fear is future-based.
Jennifer Stayton: But aren't some of those responses, though, based on when something frightening has happened? A series of crimes in a city, a natural disaster?
Junice Rockman: When we become flooded with adrenalin – which our brain and our body begins to release a certain amount of adrenaline to get us prepared to either run, freeze or fight – it is almost nearly impossible to access the logical part of our brain, the frontal cortex. We cannot be logical in that moment.
So one thing that we can do is that if we feel flooded by fear, if we're in a situation where we're in that flight-fight-or-freeze, we can give ourselves a little grace and understand that if we are acting irrationally or that we feel that we're thinking irrationally – but sometimes people are really hard on themselves - Why am I acting like this. Why am I doing this? I feel like it's warranted but it's more than what I want. Realize there is a physiological component.
Rock Rockman: And oftentimes worry and fear we go to the most extreme story or the most extreme thing that can happen, which oftentimes that's the lowest percentage of something that could actually happen to you.
Stayton: What comes to mind for me as you all discuss that is flying. I believe that the statistics will tell us we're safer getting in an airplane and taking a trip than getting in a car. We're more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident than a plane flight. But that data doesn't penetrate.
Junice Rockman: Because the logical brain cannot be accessed when we're in that heightened state of fear.
Rock Rockman: And that's when you get to another definition of fear, which fear is really just a story. It's a story that we tell ourselves, right? By getting on the plane, what's the story that you're telling yourself? What happens when I get on the plane and the plane takes off and the engine fails and then the plane is going down in a spiral, and then we crash. And then what's the biggest fear? That I might die.
And there are certain types of fear, like if you're standing in front of a black bear that's about to swing its paw at you, that's a real fear. There are ways to survive that, but there are some situations where there's not a lot that you can do, which is why Junice and I talk about really, truly just being grounded and living in the here and now. But when you do approach a situation, you have to make sure that you're telling yourself and listening to the right story.
Junice Rockman: I think a lot of it also is letting go of this idea of control, which is really a false archetype – that at this very moment, wherever you are listening to this and where we are sitting as we're having this dialogue, you know, the sun is hung in the sky, the moon is hung in the sky. We have no control over any of these things.
We walk out the door we don't know exactly what's going to happen. So part of that I think begins this process of relinquishing control. I like what Rock a lot of times will say: Expect the best, prepare for the worst. So, in other words, don't necessarily catastrophize and be thinking of the worst-case scenario every day of your life, but do as much as you can to prepare. Do as much as you can to engage, to be informed, you know, to be able to protect or preserve yourself or your family or community, but then beyond that, expect the best and live in the moment and lead with love and not fear.
Stayton: Are there times when other feelings are sort of masquerading as fear?
Junice Rockman: Sometimes I'll have a client or patient that will sit across from me and say, "I'm just so angry; I've just been so angry." And I'll say, "OK, tell me more of that." Because anger is a secondary emotion. Usually prior to anger, there's sadness or grief; there's loss. And then prior to that there's usually fear – that you're not something, that you're not going to be something, that something's not going to happen.
On the other hand, we do also have sort of this euphoric feeling when things are happening for us that we would deem or judge as positive, that we feel excitement and we still get the sweaty palms, and the racing heart and the racing thoughts and it may feel like fear. I do think there's other feelings that can masquerade as fear, but getting in touch with that and beginning to manage those and then remembering at any moment no matter what we're thinking every thought, every action, every word is either sourced from love or fear.
And whatever you feed into the most is what you'll produce more of. So more important than the action itself is what's sourcing it. So if you do something nice for somebody because you're afraid they're not going to like you anymore or you're going to lose your friends. You know? If I'm not a people pleaser, who am I in the world? You're going to continue to feed that. But if you lovingly say, maybe not no, but just not right now, I need to set a boundary for myself and take care of myself, you'll produce more of those kinds of feelings and more of those kinds of relationships that are not fear-based.
Rock Rockman: It's kind of like what you focus on the most becomes real to you, right? The way the brain works, the brain doesn't know the difference. When the brain is in an imaginative state, it doesn't know the difference, whether it's real or just being imagined, right? So the body reacts with the chemicals that are released. Whatever you imagine becomes real in the mind.
Jennifer Stayton: It seems to me that we sometimes use the word "fearless" as a compliment to describe people. And I know often when fearless is used that way it's not meant literally. But it makes me think that isn't a little bit of fear a good thing?
Rock Rockman: Fears can serve us, right? How many times have we heard stories about people that, you know, feared? You know, I feared if I was going to be a success in my life, so I just drove myself and then I became successful? Or sometimes having the fear will cause you to prepare, plan and put things into perspective where that you are prepared for something like a catastrophic event that could possibly happen, right?
And we have to think about the cause and effect, as well. Like you have, for example, a lot of men really drive themselves, they want to be successful, so they're constantly working, working, working. But then there's cause and effect. What about the wife and the children that are at home where they feel like dad is never at home? So we have to have things in balance. That fear that drives us to do something better. There is a cause and effect.
Junice Rockman: I just think that having more empathy, moving from an individualistic culture to more collectivism, where we connect with people more, we get to know each other better, we actually have real conversations and people feel, seen, heard invalidated. I do think that that's going to do a lot to reduce the shame and hopefully even some of the violence that we're seeing in our behavioral health in our culture.
Stayton: Junice and Rock Rockman, thank you so much for your time and your discussion today.
Rock Rockman: Thank you.
Junice Rockman: Thank you.