Courtney Weaver is joined by Casey Wright, a doctoral candidate in psychology, to talk about… fear (dun dun dun!). Casey explains why fear does not always have to be negative and discusses how we can work to reconceptualize it in our own lives.


Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to Wellbeing Wednesdays. My name is Courtney Weaver. I'm the host here of this lovely podcast. I'm also the director over at Well WVU here at West Virginia University with me today is Casey Wright. He is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology here at West Virginia University.

We're really excited to have him join us today. So Casey, why don't you introduce yourself and then maybe tell us a little bit about your role here at the university. Sure. Thanks for having me, Courtney. Like what's that I'm Casey and I am a fifth year of clinical psychology doctoral candidate here. I'm in my fifth year studying to do my PhD here, specialize mostly in health psychology.

So how psychology affects health and wellbeing? More specifically, I'm interested in fear, pain and anxiety and how those affect health and wellbeing. So I do a lot of research. That's kind of my main interest and working on it. I'm trying to wrap up a dissertation so I can move on with life as well. But, um, I do research, I've taught courses in the past undergraduate courses.

And along with that, I do clinical work, um, which has been in different settings. The Quinn Curtis center here at WVU. I've also worked with family medicine, doing treatment for insomnia. I have done worked at a nursing home. I've worked at the state prison system at the integrated pain clinic, and then now I'm helping out at Carruth.

And so, um, I've a broad range of different things and I'm really excited to be at Carruth and helping out there now, too. So. Awesome. So what's your dissertation on my dissertation. Didn't have a particular protein that affects the GI system. And, um, so I'm, I'm looking at that and whether stress affects that particular protein, that's the real simple version, but we're collecting 110 people in the middle of a pandemic in person trying to get blood and saliva from them and, and other things.

And so it's been, it's been fun. That's the best thing about dissertations is you become really knowledgeable about a very niche kind of topic. You're going to be an expert in that protein or people in the world that can, you know, I can talk to her about it. And then that's a PhD for anybody that's looking to do a PhD.

That's what, that's what it ends up being like, I guess. Yes. Uh, but at the end of it, they're going to call you doctor, right. And really that's, what's going to matter at the end of the day. So. All right. So, uh, you mentioned that you, one of the, one of your areas of interest is talking about fear. And so that's why you're here today.

That's our topic that we're going to start kind of diving into. So first things first, how would you define fear? Yeah, that's a, that's a really good question. I think really gets at the root of some of my interests of fear is how do we actually define it? And I don't know, we can maybe go into depth on this later too, but psychology really hangs its head a lot on what we call operational definitions.

So how do you define. The thing is that you're trying to study. Um, and so there's been lots of debates throughout the history of psychology. And even before that, of what fear really is kind of the more mainstream, what people mostly see fear as their kind of delay understanding of it is that it's something scary.

It's. Um, kind of the fight or flight response that, you know, elevated heart rate, sweaty palms panicky type of a feeling. One of the kind of main theories that my lab, I work with Dr. Dan McNeil here at WVU. And, and we've talked a lot about a model from Peter Lang in 1968, where he introduced fear as. Kind of three components.

Um, he called it overt behavior, verbal behavior and physiological behavior. So what we do, what we say and what our body does as a way to define emotion. And so when you're looking at fear for looking at overt behavior, What people do, it's kind of they're freezing or running away, or even the expressions.

They may come their face with, you know, wide eyes and whatever it might be. Um, verbal behavior might be just the screaming and app or, you know, any super verbal we'll hear that way. And then physiological is what we're probably most familiar with fear. That's the kind of elevated heart rate, sweaty poems, you know, heavy breathing muscles are tense and getting ready to, to, to go.

Right. Cause that's probably like a, a mainstream version. Um, you know, that most people understand it as kind of connotation wise. I get, this is where I kind of start to get. Frustrated with, with our definition of fear is that, um, it's always a negative connotation. People see fear as a really, really negative thing.

And one thing we do in, in, in therapy and treatment, oftentimes when we're helping someone with anxiety or any fear based disorder is helping them understand that fear is a normal part of life. And that's actually helpful in some instances, right. It's kind of similar to stress in that way where everyone.

Kind of assumes that all stress is negative and that they want to eliminate stress from their life entirely. When really, if we eliminate stress, then we wouldn't be able to, you know, drive a car or compete in any kind of way. So there is there's good stress. And so there's good fear. So that's, that's good to know.

So why do you think, um, fear is motivating for so many? Yeah. This goes off what you were just saying too that, and if you know, maybe another example really quick too, that I often use with students that are afraid of. Exams or get kind of tests or things like that is, um, well, if we didn't have any fear or any stress about a particular situation, like, uh, for our coursework, we wouldn't be driven or motivated to study at all.

We wouldn't go to class. We wouldn't be very interesting for us to do, but there's some aspect of getting us kind of activated and, and. Worry to a certain extent that will also be motivating and get us to engage in, in useful behavior, like preparing for an exam and doing well in school or a job or, or even a relationship.

Well, it's so it's interesting. So, um, I, my background is in sex education and obviously here at West Virginia University, I do like the health education, health promotion, uh, and a big I would say, I want to, I don't really want to call it an educational philosophy, but educational strategies that is common in sex education are scare tactics. So the easiest, I think pop culture example I have is the scene in mean girls where the coach stands up in front of all the, the students and says, if you have sex, you will get chlamydia and you will die. Um, which is not a helpful strategy at all because it scares them and it works perhaps in the short-term, but in the long-term it doesn't, we see the same kind of thing with AOD and substance safety education, where like the dare programs, um, were found not to be successful in the long run, because they did kind of rely heavily on those, those scare tactics.

Um, So it's kind of, it's interesting. It's like can be really motivating, but how motivating is it in the long-term if you study it in certain contexts? Um, so, so you talked a little bit about your frustration with fears and negative things. So like tell me a little bit more about your idea for the reconceptualization of fear.

I'm trying to think of where to start. So the mere the first part is kind of what I've already mentioned is that helping us understand that fear is not always a bad thing. Um, it's, it's very motivating and, and we can think our fear sometimes, you know, that it helps us to, to understand what's going on.

And I think as we start to reconceptualize emotions in general, um, Is focusing on emotions as really just tools in our ability to experience the world. And all it is really information. And, and one more data point for us as we kind of make decisions and go throughout our life. And so when we're experiencing fear, then it's just one more data point for us to understand, Oh, there's something going on here that I should respond to in some way.

Um, and it doesn't have to be positive, negative or anything. It's just simply an emotion that's telling us something that's going on. Um, and it can help us appreciate the better parts of life, um, or, or, um, yeah, like I said, understand what what's going on. I think. Part of reconceptualizing fear too, is understanding that kind of operational definition aspect of it.

That there's lots of different ways to, to define fear. Um, and I think we, people in society have you kind of capitalized on that fear is a negative, scary way to motivate and, and, you know, kind of use it more than insidious way. And that's perpetuated this definition of fear can, Oh, is always a bad thing and that we, that it's not okay to ever be afraid.

Okay. So why do you think. It's so critical for us to rethink fear. So I'm trying to think of how I want to ask this question. So, I mean, we've, we've talked a lot about my mind is like totally drawing a blank. This is what's great about podcasting is human moments or I'm like, Oh, this is like, I oftentimes struggle with the abstract.

And so this is quite an abstract concept, but it's really fascinating. So I just want to hear you talk maybe a little bit more about. Your ideas because you had so many in our initial, um, communication that I just want you to maybe expound a little bit more on an area of this particular topic that you feel passionate about.

Sure. I mean, one, one thing that I think is really interesting to think about. Um, is different definitions of fear that have been given in over the history and philosophy and even theology or, or in psychology. And one thing that I find really, really interesting is, um, kind of going back to the root definitions of fear, like, like actually in language and our most common conceptualization of fear right now is kind of based at that Greek root Phobos or phobia, which really gives that connotation of terrifying.

Um, something's really inherently dangerous. Other people though, have, um, looked at this and, and for example back, um, if you look at ancient Hebrew, one of the words for fear Euro is, is actually a connotation of this idea of reverence or respect for something. And I think if you start to think about fear in that way, it becomes different than I'm not afraid of.

X Y or Z. I, I recognize that it's a threat potentially, and I respect that it's a threat and that's all it needs to be, you know, is that, is that I'm not gonna let this kind of take over my life and paralyze me. Um, but I can give the respect to whatever it is, you know, I'm not going to go play with a bear.

Um, I can respect that. It might mangle me, um, but that doesn't have to terrify me necessarily. So I never got in the woods and enjoy hiking and things like that, but that I can go in and experience the outdoors and respect that there's things there that might be a threat to me. Right. I think you just described the dissertation defense process where, you know, like it's not going to physically harm you and you respect that.

That's something you have to go through and it's something that you are afraid of because you might not pass. And that that's always a scary thing. Um, let's talk maybe a little bit more about fear as a manipulation tactic. And I see this really. Having deeper connotations perhaps in the world of like sexual violence, um, and like emotional and psychological abuse.

So can you talk a little bit more about that? Yeah. Um, I think this goes along with, and this isn't my necessarily, my area of expertise is sexual violence, things like that. But I do think it's interesting to think about people who use fear to manipulate others in a negative way that we recognize that.

Because of the connotations in the way that we've defined fear, we can use it to try to paralyze others and things like that. And so when it's used in insidious ways to try to get people to believe certain things or to behave in certain ways, Yeah, it can definitely be high, highly motivating. And I think part of redefining fear and seeing it as a positive thing helps give, empowers us in some ways to not have to give in to some of the people who are using those scare tactics, um, because we realize what they're doing and that it's simply an emotion and that people can try to play on our emotions.

Um, and if we recognize that it helps us distance ourselves from those really intense feelings, Yeah. So do you have any advice for folks who are really looking to sort of reframe how they knew fear or when they come into a situation where fear is present? Like, do you have an idea of what someone can actually do to be like, wait, let's rethink this emotion.

Like, can I turn it into something that was useful to me? Do you have any advice? Um, yeah, I mean, certainly there's lots of different, different things that we do in therapeutic situations. Um, but also just in life in general is I think the first step is just recognizing what's happening. Some of these initial reactions that we experience when we're having anxiety or fear or stress.

Um, as a natural physiological response, like we were talking about. Um, but we can also control that through deep breathing, um, things like yoga and relaxation exercises, things like that are often things that can kind of reverse that. Sympathetic nervous system response to it. Um, but then also I think just kind of on this more philosophical level of understanding that this is something to be appreciated when we were talking about that kind of Hebrew Yurok there.

I actually got this from a blog when I was going through and looking at some of this kind of stuff. So this isn't like an academic source, but it's a pretty famous book. I think. It's his name? Rabbi Allen Lou it's I think one God hand with one hand clapping or something like that. It's a pretty popular book.

Defines fear. There's that? What overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we're used to, we're inhabiting a larger space than we're used to inhabiting. And I feel like even just that definition of itself kind of takes that edge off of it and realizes, Oh yeah, this is me experiencing more energy right now than I typically have.

What should I do with that? And as we make a decision, Um, you know, should I freeze and let this control my life or kind of use that for some action. That's gonna be useful to me in helping me to improve and progress in life. Right. It kind of reminds me of that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, which also is quoted in the princess diaries, but, uh, which is courage is not the absence of fear, but rather.

The Oh gosh, the implication that something is great or something that more is more important than fear. I totally botched that quote, but it's something along those lines, Eleanor Roosevelt, she's a wise lady. So this idea that the expanding energy is unkind. I mean, that kind of feeling is uncomfortable.

Like when you're starting to feel quote unquote fear, but it builds that energy and it can be uncomfortable. But I think once we begin to act on it and do something with it, Then it's, you know, it's, it's, it's that motivation and we're kind of, it's, it's really a good thing to help push us forward and make progress.

I think too. Yeah, I think so. Cause there's really no better feeling in the world then maybe accomplishing a task that you were afraid to do. I know after I like defended my dissertation, I felt really good about myself, but then I also got really sick because I was so stressed out. My immune system was lowered.

So that's, that's one of those physiological responses that you can't control. So, um, all right, well, let's, uh, to wrap it up, let's do our wellbeing snapshot. So let's talk about fear and COVID-19. So what's your take on that relationship? Yeah, I mean, certainly at the, at the very beginning of COVID in March, I think all of us were experiencing some definition, some level of fear.

Um, and then since then I think people. You know, from all sides of the political spectrum and whatever have, have capitalized on this idea of fear as well, whether it's, you know, fear tactics to, to get us to do or to not do things. Um, but I think understanding and respecting. COVID as a threat. Um, and, and having that reverence for it will, will kind of lead us to take it seriously, but also not let it take over our lives or let people from different perspectives.

Try to make us be more quote, unquote, scared of it. Then, then we really need to be, it's a legitimate threat and it influences a lot of people and a lot of our loved ones. Um, but it's something that we can. Have reverence and respect and that there are pretty simple things that we can do, like wearing a mask and social distancing that will help kind of embody that, that respect for it without, you know, controlling our lives and having an appreciation for the things that we do have like talking over zoom or, or being around other people.

All right. Well, thank you so much, Casey, for joining us today, this was a really interesting conversation and, uh, it looks like you're out to do great things in this world with all your wide array of knowledge. So we appreciate that. And to our rabid listeners, we really appreciate you as well. This will be our last episode for the fall semester.

We will resume again in January. So in the meantime, I hope everyone has a safe and happy and healthy holiday season, and we will catch you next time on Wellbeing Wednesdays.