A German proverb states: “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
Fear presents itself in our lives in many ways. It can be anywhere from mild to severe. It can seem silly or it can feel so intense that we shut down. Where does this fear come from?
In our brain, there is a small region called the amygdala. This small region is responsible for our fight-or-flight response and other intense emotions. An article from Smithstonian.com,What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear? describes it really well:
“This almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe of the brain is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of the stimuli – how much something stands out to us.
For example, the amygdala activates whenever we see a human face with an emotion. This reaction is more pronounced with anger and fear. A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system.
This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to be more efficient in a danger: The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down.”
All of this works to keep us safe from a perceived threat. What happens, though, when that perceived threat is not actually a threat? Or not perceived but imagined. Your body starts reacting, your feelings of fear rise, and you feel anxious. If you realize that you are safe and not in immediate danger, your system should revert to a calm state. In essence, you experienced the “wolf bigger than it was” for a brief moment. It’s an amazing response system.
However, there are times when our amygdala gets things wrong. We get this sense of fear than ends up taking over and becoming larger than needed. This is the case with both of our boys, but today I’m focusing on Mr. E. He has high anxiety and has developed Entomophobia. Wikipedia states:
Entomophobia (also known as insectophobia) is a specific phobia characterized by an excessive or unrealistic fear of one or more classes of insect… entomophobia leads to behavioral changes: the person with entomophobia will avoid situations where they may encounter the specific type of insect.
Way before we knew he had anxiety or autism, he presented with typical toddler behavior when it came to playing outside and exploring. We took frequent walks. He would stoop to look at this puddle or that bug. Then came the day of the bee attack on his younger brother. E was probably 4 years old at the time and C was about 19 months. The kids were outside playing with their cousins, who had come from California to visit. C got to exploring (as kids do) and found a wasp nest under our deck, which he proceeded to pull apart. There are discrepancies as to the number of times C was stung before we could get him in the house to safety but, it was more than a few. E saw it happen from a distance and has forever been traumatized by it. Since then, C has been stung twice more and yet, still has no issues with bees. Thank goodness he was not allergic!
So, E has been afraid of bees since. Unfortunately, he has not been able to conquer this fear with logic and it has morphed into a phobia (Apiphobia ). This, in turn, has morphed into a fear of all bugs and insects.
His phobia has become so intense that he struggles to go outside for any reason. He is unable to walk the 50 feet (15m) to the mailbox by himself. Unable to enjoy riding his bike or playing outside with the dogs. He even struggles just getting to the car if it’s parked in the driveway. He has not given up on trying to overcome it but, he has struggled to find success.
After a recent meeting with his new psychologist, we now have a plan. E desperately wants to crush this phobia into a thing of the past. With his willingness, we are about to take on what is known as Exposure Therapy. From what I understand, there are generally two schools of thought regarding “treating/curing” phobias.
The first is call “Flooding”. This type of exposure therapy can be a faster approach to ending a phobia but, it can also be more traumatic to begin and many people give up before they succeed. For example, if we were using Flooding to treat E’s apiphobia, he would be subjected to sitting in a room full of bees. This would go on for a duration and over time, and most likely several sessions, his amygdala would learn that he is not going to be hurt and his fear diminishes; essentially, retraining his fight-or-flight response to seeing a bee.
However, we have decided to go with the Fear Hierarchy method. This is slow and steady; the ‘turtle’ method as opposed to the ‘rabbit’ method of flooding. With E’s anxiety levels we felt this was the better course of treatment.
Our plan has started with identifying his fear (bugs), what he believes will happen (they might cause harm), and then creating a list of, at minimum, ten activities that he is willing to work at over time in order to desensitize himself to bugs. We’ve used a scale of 1-10, with 1 being easy, and 10 being very challenging, to itemize his list of activities. We will start with an easy item; something that he scored as a 1. We will spend 30 minutes a day doing that activity until he scores it as 0. Basically, it is no longer causing fear or anxiety. For E, his first activity is looking at pictures of bugs. That’s it. Knowing that it makes him slightly uncomfortable, but is something he can manage right away, we, ideally, will spend just a few days doing this before moving on to the next level. Other items on the list register at a 10 on the comfort scale. Something like holding a bug or having one land on him, is very uncomfortable and may take weeks or months of work. Time is not the important thing but, going slow, keeping him comfortable, and, building his confidence. These things are what’s important to taking that next step and retraining his amygdala to not react.
So, if the German Proverb states that fear makes the wolf bigger, then we are trying to take that fear away and make the wolf a puppy.