Although anyone can put on a brave face, everyone is afraid of something. Believe it or not, this isn’t a bad thing. Just like happiness, sadness, and anger, fear is a healthy emotion. It encourages us to remain aware of our surroundings, consider the impacts of our decisions, and keep our physical and mental safety in mind. Without the instinctual fear of being in harm’s way, none of us would be able to keep ourselves alive! While fear is a typical sign of healthy brain activity, it can become crippling for those who suffer from chronic anxiety and phobias. A new study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania is hoping to provide some peace of mind to those whose anxiety is debilitating.

The frequency of fears

Chronic fears are more common than you may believe. Across the years, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other medical professionals have identified thousands of unique phobias in their patients and the wider population. The fear of getting eaten by worms? Helminthophobia. The fear of long words? Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (the irony!). The fear of sleep, outer space, rabies, lemons, automobiles, rooms, or the number six? There are names for those, too. Close to 19 million people in the U.S. experience persistent phobias, while another seven million U.S. adults suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

GAD is characterized by persistent, often irrational worry about the future without any seeming connections to reality indicating any possible catastrophe ahead. The terror that these people experience about the future in relation to their fears and phobias is extremely real to them. However, a new study aimed at treating GAD attempted to expose the reality of how frequently their fears actually occurred.

The study’s fascinating findings

The study in question was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department. In order to create an accurate map of how frequently persistent fears line up with reality, they sought out participants sharing a similar trait: They were all suffering from GAD. Researchers collected data from a pool of 29 participants with the intention of understanding how their perception of negative outcomes compared to the actual results of certain scenarios. Across the course of ten days, the study’s participants were asked to report their concerns for the future. Afterward, they were expected to monitor the progression of those fears for 30 days to see how many of them actually lined up with reality. In order to eliminate any perception biases, separate raters double-checked that the results were accurate.

At the end of the study, researchers found that a whopping 91.4 percent of participants largest concerns didn’t occur. For the majority of participants, 100 percent of their worries didn’t come true within the 30-day evaluation period. While these results certainly put the minds of the study’s participants at ease, these findings could also be beneficial to other patients suffering from GAD and related anxiety disorders in the future.

Making the most of the results

How can these findings benefit anxiety-riddled individuals in the long-term? The ability to disprove the frequency of worries that people with GAD assume will occur can be a crucial step in treating anxiety disorders long-term. For starters, recognizing that their fears aren’t rooted in reality can help distinguish their concerns as a symptom of a greater problem rather than causing them to focus their attention on one, centralized worry. Let’s say that a college-aged young adult is scared that their whole family will pass away if they move away from home for school. Unless their family members are suffering from a shared illness, the probability that their family will die is likely low. However, their fears may be stemming from anxieties associated with the responsibilities of moving away from home.

Moving past the familial concerns blocking them off from their true concerns will allow them to focus more on the root of their anxieties. This can open them up to receiving treatment that they may have been closed off to before. Additionally, challenging the occurrence of fear-based events through the findings of this study/similar types of exposure therapy can help individuals with GAD and other phobias confront thoughts of negativity as they arise and fend them off with viable proof of the low-to-no occurrence of their most frequent worries. While this type of training may take time to incorporate in therapeutic approaches with severely anxious individuals, this study is a powerful first step into developing a potentially highly effective treatment for anxiety disorders.