Manataka™ American Indian Council







It is Okay to Be Afraid

by Sallie Culbreth and Anne Quinn

Fear is a healthy response to a dangerous situation. It can serve you well because it alerts you to danger and helps you to protect yourself or others. People who have experienced sexual trauma and abuse know fear all too well, and that's not irrational. That fear isn't based on fantasy, but is anchored firmly to reality - the reality that there are monsters among us and experiences that do serious harm.

We live in a dangerous world. That fact is not lost on survivors. That's why so many of us are hyper-vigilant - meaning we're always on-guard, always living in self-protective ways, and always on high alert. Again, this way of living isn't based on imagination - it is based on very real experiences.

The problem with fear - just like all the other issues that survivors struggle with - is that it tends to take on a life of its own and moves well beyond a reasonable response to actual threat. Fear often takes up residence in your every thought and soon - if it isn't examined - can dictate your every move.

Your challenge is to discern whether fear is rational or irrational, whether it is based on a real threat or not, and whether fear is triggered by something that reminds you of the past. These are the tasks that survivors face in order to manage both reality and triggers.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you experience fear:

Is there a real threat? If so, what is that threat? (Be specific in your answers to these questions.  Give the threat a precise label that you can clearly identify.)

Is this a perceived threat? Is something causing me to feel threatened, but I haven't been able to clearly identify it yet? If so, what do I suspect is causing me to feel threatened and fearful? (Again, be specific - the more thought you give to these questions, the better you can navigate through what is happening.)

Does this feel threatening because it reminds me of the past when I was in danger and afraid? If so, am I reacting to the past - being triggered by the past - or am I responding to the present?

If this is a real threat, what can I do to be safe? What resources do I have? Who can I call for help? Where can I go? What actions can I take?

If I are being triggered but am not actually in danger, what can I do to manage my fear and panic? (Can you do some deep breathing? Can you reach out to someone for support? Can you speak to the trigger and to yourself and say something like, "This reminds me of the past, but it is not the past. I will stay present and respond to this moment in this moment, rather than the way I might if I were truly in danger.")

Fear is a powerful force that can help you or hurt you. Fear evokes a fight, flight, or freeze response, and all of these are meant to help protect you. When these responses are because of a real and present threat, they help you. When these responses are because you are triggered by something that reminds you of a past threat, that's when you can find yourself trapped in that past.

The strategy of asking yourself these questions helps you to live and respond to the here-and-now. Fear from the past - although it is a force to contend with - can be managed by self-comforting techniques such as deep breathing, finding a supportive group of people, and reminding yourself that you are safe. Fear is not a bad thing. It is what it is and your challenge is to do what you need to do to feel safe. Just make sure that you recognize the difference between fear from a present situation and fear that is triggered from the past. That distinction goes a long way in helping you to reclaim your life.

© 2016 STAARR - Sexual Trauma and Abuse Recovery Resources, Inc.