Even though an avid skier, I am afraid of riding chairlifts. I didn't have this fear when I first began to ski but several years ago a friend told me about the brake failure of a chairlift that resulted in the death of a number of people. Just as he finished this charming story, the chairlift we were riding stopped and started to slip backwards!
My fear began shortly thereafter.
Now chairlifts are safe to ride. There is always a chance of a mishap but it is very small indeed.
But not according to my imagination! As I ride up the chairlift, instead of enjoying the scenery or the gentle sway of the chair, I imagine that all sorts of terrible things might happen: brake failure, the cable jumping the track or the chair falling off the cable. And if the chairlift should stop or slow down, I become convinced I am about to crash backwards to the bottom or the lift is stuck, leaving me to spend the night two hundred feet above the ground in sub-zero weather.
In other words, I literally talk, imagine or think myself into my senseless fear.
There are many theories about the causes of fear and anxiety. Probably all of them have a bit of the truth.
Sigmund Freud, for example, the pioneer in the study of emotional and mental problems, thought that anxiety was a signal to the person that some primitive, unacceptable impulse was about to break through to consciousness. Existential psychologists argue that anxiety is caused by the threat of non-being or death. Behavioral psychologists define anxiety as a learned reaction that generalizes to many situations. We are attacked by a dog and so become afraid of all dogs, even though many of them are friendly and harmless.
What all of these theories hold in common is that anxiety and fear are the result of some threat - real or imagined - to our well-being. We are afraid either of physical harm that might occur through attack, accident or illness, or psychological -arm that might occur through failure or rejection.
Worries are caused by our thinking or imagining something harmful happening to us or our loved ones, as when I imagine some failure of the chairlift I am riding. What converts worries into fear or anxiety is that we often assume that what we think might happen, will happen, or has already happened in our overactive imaginations. We fail to distinguish between reality - this present moment and our fancied thoughts of possible future harm, and so make ourselves upset.
Worries, fears and anxieties are either realistic or unrealistic. It is realistic, for example, to worry about a charging grizzly bear but not realistic to be afraid of harmless snakes or insects. It is realistic to worry about your job if the economy is shaky or if you are goofing off but not if the economy is sound and you are a good worker.
And common sense tells us that there are only two types of worries: those you can do something about and those you can't. If you're worried about losing your job, you can't do much about the economy but you can work to improve your job performance.
Worries, fears, and anxieties are not all bad for they motivate us to do things that are good for us. We take care of ourselves because of a fear of ill health. We save for retirement because we worry about supporting ourselves in our old age.
Only when they become excessive or too uncomfortable do these reactions become serious problems.
And growth is not possible without anxiety. Whenever we do something new or different – leave home, go to college, get married or take a new job - our confidence and abilities are always challenged, and so we become anxious. But only as we face and overcome these new challenges and anxieties do we grow in maturity, wisdom and self-esteem.
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