Help! I'm Paralysed By Fear But Want My Life Back

From the outside looking in, you wouldn't know there's a problem but there is a big one brewing. This reader's fear of being attacked is overwhelming her. She's paralysed by fear.

Dear Rhona,

I’m in my early thirties and am in a good place in my career.  I have a fairly large group of friends, one of whom I lived with up until very recently when she moved in with her boyfriend.  My new flatmate is a friend of a friend and we’re very different.  I didn’t realise how dependent I was on my previous flatmate for a social life.  If there were nights out with mutual friends we got a taxi home together, we walked at night after work together and were generally working to a similar schedule.  I knew when she’d be home, when she was out etc and it all worked.  I’ve always been a bit of a scaredy-cat in terms of personal safety, which my friends joke about.  I’d never wear a pony tail because it’s an easy grab for a would-be attacker, I rarely, rarely get a taxi home alone late at night as I feel very vulnerable, I don’t drink if I’m coming home alone and don’t wear revealing clothes so I don’t draw attention to myself.  I basically won’t go out after dark alone and would never even consider meeting a total stranger for a first date.  Now that my friend is gone, I find myself turning down nights out because I can’t deal with the stress that comes with it.  I’m barely out beyond 6.30 pm at the moment but also not sleeping until my flatmate comes in because I don’t feel safe until the chain is on and the door is double-locked.  For the first time, I can see that I have a problem.  I'm paralysed by fear but want to get my life back but I don’t know where to start.  House Arrest, Dublin.

I know this is unlikely to be your primary inclination but the first thing we need to do is thank your friend for moving out.  Without realising it, she has been your long-time crutch, masking issues that are now bubbling over and hugely impacting your quality of life.  After a run of self-imposed curfews and missed nights out, the best possible outcome is that you acknowledge there’s a problem.  So it’s a high five doubler for you and your friend and the serendipitous sequence that has landed you here.

Honing in on your ‘negativity bias’ is the best place to start.  This concept – that we are hard-wired to think negatively – is supported by hefty global research since the 1970’s.  For our Neanderthal relatives, this default precautionary thinking was crucial to survival.  They relied on their sense of fear to assess and avoid dangerous predators, not least the sabre toothed tiger but more likely a rival tribe.  Back in 2018, with a turmeric smoothie in one hand and an iPhone 7 welded to the other, these primitive instincts are less helpful but not entirely useless.

The amygdala, a section of the brain responsible for processing emotions, is linked to both fear and pleasure responses.  There is an imbalance however, in that the amygdala uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to identify and store negative experiences.  Positive experiences, researchers say, have to be held in our awareness for more than twelve seconds to transfer from short to long-term memory.  While negative experiences are vaulted in long-term memory as they happen.  Rick Hanson, the best-selling author of Hardwiring Happiness, says:

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

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This is why you never forget being afraid, humiliated or upset.  I still torture my teen BFF for that time she invited me for a sleepover when we were twelve.  As I skipped gormlessly towards her house she screeched up to me on her Triumph Twenty with another giggling friend on her backer.  ‘Where are you going?’ She said. ‘Your house!’ I beamed.  ‘Oh no, sorry, I invited (name withheld) instead.’ And they sped off towards tweentopia – a jumbo jar of Snickers spread, Porky’s II on the Betamax and a night of confessional chats before them.  The scene is seared in my memory.

In your case, your inclination to pre-empt the worst-case scenario every time is disabling you.  You’re more likely to socialise based on your need to avoid negative experiences, rather than to prioritise positive ones, so it’s essential you redress the balance.  

In terms of hard facts to counter your fears, it’s also important to note that violent attacks are rare. The Rape Crisis Network Ireland released stats in 2016 stating that 85% of the victims they counselled already knew their attacker.  Right now, there are more reports of taxi drivers being attacked by passengers than there are of passengers being violated.  That’s not to say it never happens, there is always a risk but assessing that risk and taking sensible precautions should be your priority.  

When you assess risk you should consider the positive as well as the negative outcome.  With a taxi driver, for example – where you have no doubt used a MyTaxi or similar app to trace your driver and agreed to call a friend to check in during your ride home – a possible positive outcome is that you have an interesting conversation with a decent human being.  Beyond that you’ve had a much-needed night out with friends and banked some soul glow.

In Ireland, we seem to be morbidly fascinated with bad news, ‘imminent threats’ and death notices.  My Mum likes to mail me updates on brutal multi-county crime cartels that have set up shop in my area. I usually get these bulletins while my husband is away and I’m alone in the house with the kids.  There’s a thinking that forewarned is forearmed, and I can see the logic but what is anyone going to do with that information?  Booby-trap the house, stop sleeping, go full feral GI Jane on twenty cans of Red Bull?  

No. Commit to a rolling news detox for at least a couple of months, banning family from spreading the doom, too. Leave the Neighbourhood Watch WhatsApp group. By all means, chat to your neighbours but don’t stay awake half the night to frenzied notifications confirming that a white van with two suspicious ‘youths’ was seen parked outside number 45 again today.  They’re probably installing a kitchen or landscaping the garden or maybe one of them is going out with no. 45’s daughter?

Take control of your week, challenge yourself with a yoga or meditation class, planning evening activities to switch up your weekly routine and rack up those positivity points.  See the people you love, invite your new flatmate out for a drink.  If you find it difficult to affect so much change alone, seek help with a GP-recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.  Even four to six sessions with a good practitioner will give you the tools you need to break your negative cycle.

And remember that fear itself is not the enemy, ultimately it keeps us alive.  "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,’ said Nelson Mandela.  ‘The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."  Granted, he wasn’t talking about riding a Jo Maxi out of town on a Friday night but it all still stands.  Very best of luck reclaiming your life.

Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart.  If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it.  Write to Rhona at aunty.rhoner@gmail.com.

Photo credit Fei Fee Ping, Unsplash 

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