Skip to content

Fear eats up thoughts … *)

“Tomorrow you have your appointment at the dentist!” exclaimed the mother as she glanced into Alexander’s room before leaving.
“I know!” he replied, wincing at the thought.
He was just sitting with the practice problems the math teacher had handed out for next week’s schoolwork. They weren’t too difficult, but at least this test was the last chance to avoid the rather sad D in the final report of the class.
Sighing, he picked up his calculator and typed in the specification.
“The square root of forty-seven comma eleven is rounded to two digits six comma eight … Hopefully I’ll get to it right away and won’t have to wait as long as last time!”
Alexander remembered that this time he was going to have a root canal, but “You’ll get an injection first!” the doctor had said, probably to comfort him.
“Where was I? The root of seventy-four … Root … Root canal treatment! That’s when the tooth is drilled out really deep … ”
The root sign on the calculator reminded him of one of those numerous instruments that dentists seem to gleefully spread out in front of the patient even before treatment. The preparation for schoolwork was over. As often as Alexander tackled an exercise task, at some point his thoughts landed on the dentist …

Psychologists and other professionals have a lot to do with people’s fears, which is probably one of the most difficult tasks they face in their profession. They know from their daily work that there are many things that students are afraid of: schoolwork and exams, individual subjects, some teachers, bringing home a bad grade, but also being asked something unprepared, suddenly not being able to think of anything during a school assignment, or not having enough time to study.

Like fear of the dentist, these fears can cause learning to be more about the fears than the subject matter. In bad cases, learning time is eventually eaten up entirely by such thoughts. Researchers have found that 15 percent of all students are afraid of school. But there are probably few students who are not plagued by anxiety from time to time.

The most important thing in dealing with anxiety is not to try to run away from it, for example by telling yourself that it’s not there. It is a typical characteristic of fear that it creeps silently into our thoughts again after a short time, whether we want it to or not! It’s like a toothache: you can take a powder, but at some point the effect of the powder wears off and the pain returns. But there is no powder against fear!

With toothache it is quite clear: one must eliminate the cause, i.e. have the broken tooth repaired. But this is much easier than eliminating the causes of a fear. When a student is afraid of an object or school work, he thinks that he cannot do anything about it. Thus, the feeling of helplessness is often added to the fear. This leads him to refrain from doing anything about the situation, and thus to surrender to his supposed fate.

However, we only have a chance of success in doing something about our fear if we consciously deal with it, even if this is unpleasant at first. The decisive factor is that we approach the fear ourselves and do not wait until it catches up with us!

If fears become too great, then we should consider who can help us to do something about them. After all, a big part of any fear is the feeling of standing alone against an overwhelming opponent. Talking to someone about your fear can be relieving, and you can hope to find an ally. This can be a friend, a father or mother, a teacher, but even a stuffed animal will do in a pinch. Talking to someone about one’s anxiety is also the most important tool that psychologists can offer.
With an ally, it’s easier to find ways to prevent anxiety from overwhelming you in the future. Maybe better study planning or talking to your teacher is an opportunity, maybe a list of things you can do to prevent yourself from getting anxious about an exam date in the first place will help.

Having an ally can make it easier to find ways to avoid getting overwhelmed by anxiety in the first place in the future. Maybe better study planning or talking to your teacher is an opportunity, maybe a list of things you can do to avoid getting into the position of being anxious about an exam date in the first place will help.

On paper, of course, this all reads much easier than it is! But psychologists also know that everyone has fears – in a way, they are part of being human. Fears are basically not a bad thing, they make people rise above themselves, drive them to achieve more. Burgeoning fear, like fever or pain, is a signal, unpleasant but vital. We should therefore not avoid fears right from the start, but try to develop counterforces: Courage, trust, hope.


*) The title of this learning tip is based on the touching film by Rainer Werner Faßbinder “Angst essen Seele auf” (Fear eats up thoughts .., 1973), which shows the individual’s fear of loneliness and his search for warmth and security.