Most us probably fear things that we shouldn't really fear—like a routine dentist appointment or that teeny tiny crawling spider—and even though we realize, rationally, that we shouldn't fear something so silly, we just can't seem to help it. Most of the time these little fears don't hinder us too much, but there are times when they can prevent us from making positive choices—like when you going to the dentist every six months—and there are times when they can prevent us from living in the present—like when you spend time outside searching for potential bug encounters.
That last line pretty much sums up where this whole irrational fear topic is coming from. For the past few weeks, every time I take Barkley for a walk, I search the ground relentlessly, I carefully scan the bark of trees, and I cock my head listening for that all-too-familiar screeching sound. Rather than enjoy my little outdoor breaks with Barkley, I'm constantly embarking on a fear-based hunt. And the dreaded creature I'm searching for isn't some crazed monkey or ravenous lion. It's a small, two-inch-long insect that doesn't bite or sting known as a cicada.
For those of you who don't live on the US East Coast, you might not be familiar with these winged beasts that crawl out from the ground by the millions every 13- to 17-years to mate. During this oddly-timed ritual (I mean, how do they know it's been exactly 13 or 17 years?!), they shed their exoskeletons, make a preposterous amount of noise, and fly around wildly and erratically in search of a mate. Other than some damage to certain types of trees, they don't really hurt anything, especially not people. But, if I'm completely honest, they make me more than a little nervous. I am not excited to see them return—particularly now that I'm out and about with my puppy every few hours.
Scientists say the cicadas will arrive when the ground reaches 64°, but, not having a thermometer handily plunged in the earth, I have to rely on my eyes and ears to spot these harmless-yet-terrifying creatures. As the temperature continues to increase into the high 70s and 80s, so too do my efforts to spot the first cicada. Even though I know they're harmless—and inevitable—I find myself constantly searching, as if by spotting one I can somehow quell the dread I experience when I think of their impending arrival.
Of course, my rational mind realizes that, whether I spot one or not, they're coming—and there's not a thing I can do about it. And yet I find myself absorbed by this fear—or perhaps more accurately, dread, since I'm not really afraid of them—and it's taking me away from the present, putting my mind into an imagined future where cicadas are flying spastically all around me and I'm terrified of even the shortest venture outside. I know better than anyone that living in an imagined future (especially a fear-based one!) does nothing but soil the present, which is exactly why I've resolved to (attempt to) conquer this irrational fear of cicadas—at least until they arrive.
6 STEPS FOR CONQUERING AN IRRATIONAL FEAR
1. Address your emotional responses. The first key to dealing with any fear is admitting to it (not always easy if, say, the fear is a bug and you are an adult!). And the next key thing is to recognize your emotional (and physical—heart beating fast, muscles tensing up, palms sweating) responses to the fear. Sometimes fear—especially the irrational kind—can take over and we don't even realize how afraid we are of something until we start paying attention to our own signals. When we pay attention to how we are feeling and when we are feeling that way, we are able to work with those emotional responses rather than simply react to them.
2. Question your negative thoughts. The best way to deal with an emotional fear response is to question the negative thoughts. For example, I think to myself, "Cicadas are going to come and swarm around me and get in my hair and Barkley is going to eat them and I am going to freak out if they land on me..." etc., etc. When I think things like this, it's time to start questioning those thoughts. Are they definitely going to land on me? No. If they do, will it be the end of the world? No. If Barkley eats one is the worst thing that could happen? No (people even eat them!). The more I question these negative thoughts, the more I'm able to see my fear more rationally.
3. Use your senses to stay present. While I'm anticipating the cicadas, I'm missing out on what's actually happening in the present—what I can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. Instead of directing my attention to what I'm going to be afraid of it in the future, it's best for me to focus on what's happening now, which includes all of the beautiful things about springtime. Rather than worry about what's coming, we need to redirect our attention to what's here. And even when the cicadas do arrive and I'm fearful of them, I can focus my attention on other aspects of my daily walks, like Barkley proudly carrying a little stick or a whole azalea bush in full bloom.
4. Get (gradual) exposure to what you fear. It can be hard to actually expose yourself to what you're afraid of (just looking at photos of cicadas online sends shivers of disgust down my spine!), but when the fear must be conquered (after all, I can't stay indoors for the six weeks these little guys are out and about!), it's key to start gradually coming to terms with the fear. I've started doing this by looking at them online, and, while I won't say it's really helped that much yet, I have a feeling I'll be less surprised when I encounter one of these guys in real life. Plus, once they arrive, I'm going to give myself a chance to check them out up close so I'm not so scared if I do come in close contact with one.
5. Recall what you've conquered. I've been through these cicada cycles three times already in my life and each and every time I've made it through; I've conquered this same scenario three times. Even when I recall the unpleasant experiences I've had with them, I realize that, in the big picture, these little bugs don't really impact my life that much. (Though, to be fair, one of my earliest memories is riding my pink Big Wheel bike and watching the dead cicadas attached to the wheel spin around and around.) The irrational fear is just that—irrational—and by revisiting the situations you've already been through, you will feel stronger and more ready to take on your fear.
6. Take it one day at a time. This might seem like a cliched AA saying, but it has a lot of merit, especially when it comes to coping with fear. Instead of worrying about the cicadas coming, I need to focus on today. They have not yet arrived. And when they do arrive, I need to focus on that day and that moment instead of worrying about whether or not I'm going to have an encounter with one. To cope with any irrational fear, it can be so helpful to take it one day, hour, minute at a time. Instead of worrying about the future—six weeks of cicadas! ahhh!—the trick is to focus on getting through little bits of time. It's much easier to master a fear when you tell yourself you only have to do it for a short period of time. And all those short periods of time add up!
Fear is a funny thing. It can take over our minds and make us believe danger is imminent even when we are perfectly safe. It can supercharge our emotions until we're almost blinded by what we believe to be a very valid state of mind. It can hold a lot of power—but only if you allow it to. Difficult as it might be to see sometimes, we have more control over our fears than we let on. It's often easier to give into them, to let them take over, but we have the power to take back our own minds, directing our attention back to what's rational and true. Obviously the fear I've discussed here isn't a major one (or a rational one), but it shows how a small thing can gradually manifest itself into a big thing if you don't make an effort to conquer the fear.