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Mental Illness: Understanding Rational and Irrational Fears

This morning, coffee in hand, I tried to think of a topic that might be a little bit easy to write. It’s one of those days. And then this idea springs from somewhere in my mind that is clearly more awake than I am. It’s not going to be the easiest–I know this as I write these words–but it’s something I have never explored before and, well, I guess it’s about time.

How Are Irrational Fears Connected to Mental Illness?

First, let’s briefly define what an irrational fear is. According to The Mecca known as Wikipedia an irrational fear is connected to a “phobia” and, in the realm of psychology and psychiatry, related to:

“. . . a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational.”

OK. That sort of makes sense so far, but how is this connected to mental illness and our recovery from it? A few examples:

>Sometimes, particularly when first diagnosed, we feel as if nobody will ever want to be part of our lives. We feel, as I have said before, sort alien to a world we may have understood prior to diagnosis.

>We may feel we will spend our entire lives unstable. Yes, mental illness can be hard to treat, but we can all find a level of recovery.

>We might feel like we are bad people and our illness is our fault and not a disease.

Irrational thoughts usually abate as we begin to recover from mental illness, but when we are struggling they can be scary–to say the least.

How Are Rational Fears Connected to Mental Illness?

Rational fears are often connected to a state of recovery–or as we make progress and find stability. Unlike irrational fears, rational fears push us forward, they allow us to embrace our lives and work to accept mental illness–not an easy feat!

Examples of rational fears when connected to mental illness:

>Once stable we may fear relapse. Unfortunately, this is a rational fear, but it pushes us to learn about and practice self-care.

>We fear we have damaged relationships when unwell and this pushes us  to rebuild relationships with the rational understanding that we are not so different. We are, in fact, just human.

Rational and irrational fears can be connected to mental illness in many different ways–I can only provide a few examples–but as we move toward recovery our thought process becomes more rational. Like most things in life, it just takes time, and patience.

What are your feelings surrounding mental illness and irrational and/or rational fears?

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10 Responses to Mental Illness: Understanding Rational and Irrational Fears

  1. carl says:

    My anxiety originated in childhood as a rational response to my parents’ relationship and behavior toward my siblings and myself. When things were calm, at any moment one of my parents could say something that would spark a horrendous fight (screaming, swearing, threats, dishes smashing off the walls) that would last for hours. There was no hiding from the battle and the mortifying emotional abuse that came with it. So anxiety was a realistic, rational response to what inevitably was going to happen. It was also a way to prepare for and cope with my parents’ frequent battles.

    The problem is, the anxiety stayed with me when I became an adult. No longer under my parents’ roof, I no longer needed to be vigilant and anxious, but I was. The threat was gone, but the ingrained anxiety remained and thus became irrational.

    I still deal with anxiety. I’ve learned how to minimize it. I have anxiety-free moments, but I may never be completely rid of it. So, when it comes to anxiety, for me recovering from mental illness means continuing to cope with mental illness.

    My parents have both passed on. Each also had an incredibly wonderful side, and I loved them both very much and still do. I’ve forgiven them. They were fallible, as all of us are. I was close to both of them in the latter stages of their lives.

  2. carl says:

    ps. Good topic!

  3. Hi, Carl:
    Thank you for such a detailed, educated, and thoughtful response. You are a survivor in your own right! Anxiety is always lurking in my life; As you mentioned, I am not sure I am ever rid of it. Your sort of get used to it until it becomes really awful. I think many people can relate to your words and I thank you for sharing them.
    -Natalie

  4. This is a topic that really hits home.I’ve had a fear of riding in cars and sometimes in open spaces for years already. It has changed & alternated my life in some ways.The doctors don’t have a CURE for phobias.I was told either you FORCE yourself or AVOID it.That’s the only answer they have come up with.

  5. carl says:

    Natalie,

    Thanks for the nice words. I relate to this blog, I guess because I see myself as recovered but always recovering, and your topics are interesting. :)

  6. carl says:

    ps. My reply yesterday got me to thinking. Recovering is the best way to put it–not recovered but recovering–as the title of your blog says. I’m avoiding the abyss, but still dealing with some thorny issues. I’ve made some bad decisions in recent years and paying the price.

  7. Hi, Carl,
    You are very welcome!
    Sincerely,
    Natalie AKA someone trying to understand rational fears!:)

  8. Hi, Paul:
    Yes, phobias are hard! I struggled with agoraphobia when in my teens. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is said to work best alongside medication and “exposure therapy”
    Always look forward to your comments,
    Natalie

  9. Michael Lambert says:

    I find your articles on fear very interesting and for the most part obviously correct. Onto the rational fear, you say in this article that some fears are rational. In another article you say it is just a fear of fears that we fear. One of my instructors in rehab agree with this theory too. They said that all fears are learned and to prove I should cross the street without looking either direction. As you state “its a worry of what COULD happen.”
    So with this logic, why do you wear a seat belt or stop at red lights, why do you look both ways before you cross the street? Doesn’t this make you live under the false notion of fear? I saw a phycological study in infants when placed on glass tables, would cry as if the fear/respect of heights is an natural perhaps rational fear. However; if this is actually irrational, then why do people working at extreme heights need fall protection gear? Why do police officers wear bullet proof vests? Why dowe need brakes on cars, or locks on our front doors? Why would we even pay our bills or buy food at the store; would not purchasing food in advanced be a irrational fear of starvation?

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