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Wellness

What Is Fear And What Is Love? A Comparison

It’s no secret I’m a sucker for horror movies (and even better, horror novels) – and I think that they’re a great way to understand the difference between love and fear. In Fear You Aren’t Ready For Love, the movie-star-turned-Psychologist Dr. Jekyll (a.k.a. Mark McConville) explains: “Love is a simple, powerful emotion. It will help us deal with all kinds of difficulties in our lives and to keep us going. But fear can be a real problem, and we have to learn to recognize how dangerous it can be…”

You know what I’ve learned over the past few months? The most powerful lesson I’ve learned is that fear and love are not opposites. When we’re overcome by fear we lose our ability to feel love. This is not healthy and in fact it has lasting repercussions in our relationships. It’s important to find balance in what we do fear and what we do love. My goal is to help others learn to do the same. As a psychologist working with hundreds of survivors of sexual trauma and intimate partner abuse in my private practice, I have seen how the fear that comes from sexual traumas often follows a pattern of fear and loss of trust that can turn to love: we come into love with the person at the center of this abuse, then we fall out of love with ourselves, and then we’re finally able to find the courage to get back in.

In an attempt to understand the feelings of fear and love associated with sexual trauma survivors, the first step is learning to recognize fear. In order for fear to be felt, we first need to be fearful. In Psychotherapy With Survivors of Sexual Trauma , the book I published with my close colleague Dr. Heather Hendershott, we explain: “…if someone has been emotionally traumatized, they experience a fear response. If they experience the fear response, it is not considered a normal response. However, there are two reactions that occur when a person’s fear response is triggered: A strong negative emotion that is different than that of a normal response…and the emotional experience of the person becomes something we know as fear. It is the most positive response to feeling frightened by a situation, and is a signal to people that the experience is over. The first two reactions—fear and rage—occur together.

So let’s step back a bit and think about fear and what it does when we feel it. I like to think of fear as a kind of stress hormone . When we’re in a situation we’re afraid of, it causes a spike in blood pressure, which leads to a state known as stress . This is when our body changes so that we’re taking longer to recover from the trauma or the situation in general, making us more fearful and in many cases more stressed.

We’re then more likely to have further stress-related responses like hyper-vigilance, a state where we look for threats and things that are out to get us, followed by a tendency to over-react to situations and engage in destructive behaviors or behaviors that do not serve our best interest. Over time, this will translate into depression , anxiety , and stress.

So what are the common patterns of sexual trauma survivor fear? It starts with an overwhelming fear of intimacy. I don’t only mean physical closeness like being intimate with someone else. Rather, I just mean the possibility that we could lose intimacy with our partners and not find the courage to get back. This is what leads to fear in general, and how we often end up feeling that we’re not ready to love somebody. This is what it means to experience fear. It’s just being fearful that someone might leave for a relationship without you (or with you) because we worry that they might be emotionally unavailable (when in reality, that’s only a temporary problem that will go away).

Our fear then leads to our next fear that can translate into fear: “I’ll be rejected.” Once we lose our partner to a sexual or emotional trauma, we are not really in control of our lives anymore. This fear can translate to “I will be punished for this. I’ll be blamed for this. Why would a person do this to someone else?” However this fear does not lead to fear, and rather, to compassion. We are able to feel the connection and love that we need to heal. It allows us to forgive our partner and to be mindful of how the hurt affected us.