Let’s Talk About It: Fear of the unknown

Posted by Colleen O'Neil on 1/27/2022

Once again, I find myself reflecting on what is happening in our schools, with our students, and with the community as a whole. As I was doing so, a common theme emerged: fear. I quickly began to see how fear can be a common denominator in most anything. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of being without. Then it hit me — fear is so prevalent in substance use, yet it is rarely connected with how someone is dealing with substance use. Given the fact that a vast majority of us have been dealing with fear of some sort for the past two-plus years, it may be a good time to address it head on.

What is really challenging is that fear can often fuel substance use, and substance use can often numb fear. I think about that statement and immediately visualize a hamster on a wheel. I then look at those who struggle with substance use in one way or another and realize that fear is often a barrier to getting the help they need. As a parent, I also look at fear as the reason why I may choose not to ask certain questions or ignore warning signs that I may have noticed with my student.

Acknowledging and accepting fear as something one can manage is the first step in making changes to one’s substance use. Let’s take that a step further and break down some of those fears:

  • Fear of withdrawal: The fear of physical withdrawal is real and while it can last for a few days or up to a week or more, there is help out there for you to navigate withdrawal, which in turn helps diminish the fear.
  • Fear of change: Any of us fear change — we become comfortable with what we know. When one is using mood-altering substances to deal with fear, we must remember that the substance does nothing more than mask the fear. Appropriate substance use support and group therapy can help one realize that fear can actually keep us on the hamster wheel and while we may believe we are dealing with fear appropriately, we are only delaying the inevitable.
  • Fear of facing reality: For teens who are actively using, there is a real fear of reality. Most often lies have been told, trust has been broken, behaviors have been challenging and facing reality means one must face the negative of the substance use. Emotional baggage needs to be addressed and while there is fear in doing so, there are rewards far beyond that are greater. Rebuilt relationships, trust, and respect to name a few. 
  • Fear of sobriety: Substance use is often tied to the inability to cope with emotions. Addiction is devious. It makes one feel that without the substance, one will not be able to manage. While it may feel that way at the beginning, nothing can be further from the truth. Sobriety brings with it a sense of freedom, sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride.
  • Fear of success: This is a tough one. Feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt can keep someone from being successful when seeking sobriety. Many people dealing with substance use issues believe they don’t deserve happiness or success in their lives. If we have tried and failed, it is difficult to pull yourself up and start again. The thing is, recovery often includes failed attempts and this can lead to one feeling they are not deserving of success. Remember, one decision, one action, one day at a time. 

Fear is often viewed as a negative reaction or a negative emotion. When fear enters your thought process, I challenge you to take the time to shift your thinking in a way that allows you to overcome the fear and continue to move forward. Focus on the positive, leave the negative behind. Focus on the goal, not the mistakes that have been made in order to achieve it! 

As always, my hope is that you have enough information at your fingertips to help your student and if given the opportunity, you can say, “Let’s Talk About It.”

Colleen O'Neil

Colleen O’Neil, LADC, CPP
Anoka-Hennepin School District Chemical Health Prevention Specialist
Phone: 763-506-1145
Email: colleen.oneil@ahschools.us