CONQUERING FEAR AND ANXIETY
Have you ever felt afraid, anxious or worried, and the feeling was awful … and it wouldn’t go away … and you didn’t know what to do about it? If so, please keep reading. The purpose of this article is to help you cope with fear and anxiety.
We tend to assume that feeling afraid or anxious is not good. In fact fear is not purely negative; it can be your friend, when it alerts you to danger and prompts you to be cautious. And a little bit of anxiety can be helpful, if it motivates you to work hard, instead of resting on your laurels. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we will address the destructive impact of fear (a response to an immediate physical threat) and anxiety (fear of a potential or possible threat). Interestingly, the body’s reaction to anxiety is similar to its reaction to fear.
Throughout the world, millions who suffer from anxiety and fear may never consider seeking help; after all, we’ve come to believe that fears, like the fear of the monster under the bed, can disappear with time. But as we mature, we can notice that other fears will not just fade away. Fear is too powerful a force, and it touches us on the deepest level: the level of survival. If it starts to dominate your life, it may be time to seek help.
Fear is one of our most basic emotions, starting from our first day outside the womb – the shock of being born: the bright lights, the cold, the noise, all those new stimuli are bound to create at least a little discomfort. Then there’s the fear that comes with being disconnected from the mother, the source of life … fear of being dropped onto the ground … the fear of not getting relief from discomfort.
Secondly, fear results from the intense personal encounter. For example, just one instance of being bitten by a dog can lead to a lifelong phobia.
A third source of fear conditioning is the influence of powerful people – parents, teachers and others – who can lead one to become fearful or anxious. Such influence can be delivered by direct training (a bullying or abusive parent) or indirectly, by example. A child brought up in a family that doesn’t tolerate strangers or people who are ‘different’, may grow up with matching beliefs, even if the prejudice is not expressed openly.
The aftereffects of frightening experiences can paralyze our ability to think clearly, to make good decisions and to solve problems. They can be so devastating, that, in order to counteract their destructive effects, overwhelming positive input is required. This brilliant discovery was made by marriage researchers and teachers, John and Julie Gottman. From decades of scientific observation they discovered that, to offset the damage of an insult, threat or other negative communication, five positive communications must be delivered.
At times the reasons for the presence of fear and anxiety are a bit of a mystery, except in the case of a real and present danger, when fear makes sense. In fact, emotions in general do not respond to reason; any parent who’s tried to convince a child to give up a boyfriend or girlfriend knows about that. If you try to eliminate anxiety or fear through will power or concentration, you’ll just end up feeling frustrated. Another way to put it: reasoning is the wrong ‘tool’ to use when dealing with fear. You may as well try to drive a nail with a mushy banana. Logic and reason are not only the wrong tool, but you may have noticed that the more you try to control or conquer fear, the more the fear controls you.
Naturally we want to free ourselves of emotional distress. But some people actually make the problem worse. They have an unpleasant emotion, and then … they feel bad about having the emotion. Here’s what I mean. In my work I’ve met many people who were raised by well-meaning parents to believe that certain emotions are wrong: anger, for example; or jealousy, suspicion, envy, etc. [“You shouldn’t feel that way. It’s wrong to be angry at your little sister, she doesn’t know any better, what’s wrong with you?!”] So the child grows up having an honest emotion that he can’t control, and then feeling guilty about feeling that way. In order to be a good boy, he stuffs the emotion down. And in the course of stuffing the ‘bad’ emotion (as if there is such a thing), he learns to stuff other emotions, too. This is how people learn to deny that they’re afraid or worried.
Unfortunately, people who’ve tried to deny their fears discover the sad truth that – just like trying to control fear – it doesn’t work. In fact, the more we sweep the emotion under the rug, the more it sneaks out and bites us.
Well, then. If fear does not respond to logic or to the attempt to control or fight it, what can we do? Are there any other options?
I think so. For one thing, we can change the way we think and respond when we feel fear or anxiety. Remember, most of the time we experience fear or anxiety, the fear will be followed by some other stuff: actions, thoughts and other emotions, like anger or sadness. But if we take a moment, we can realize that it is our nature to find some other way to experience that emotion. We spin it, we interpret the situation, we do all sorts of stuff that accomplishes nothing except to rub salt into our own wounds.
Here is an example: We have a problem, and it’s so difficult that we see no solution. It’s hopeless! Now, if we think that situation is permanent, we are less likely to find relief. How does that show up? In the way we talk to ourselves about it: ‘That’s the way it is, my lousy life. What’s the point of trying? It’s useless. Just my luck’. We have already concluded that things will never change. But is that true? In a worldly sense, the fact is that nothing is forever. People come and go, live and die. Nations and civilizations come and go. Life goes on as a series of cycles, like the in-breath and the out-breath, the tides and the seasons. We fall in and out of love. And emotions come and go, too. We are afraid and then we are not afraid. If we can remember this when fear and anxiety present themselves, we can remind ourselves “This, too, shall pass”. We can also say to ourselves something a little different, like “Okay, I’m scared. What else is possible?” When we shift our thinking in response to the emotion, the anxiety is more bearable, and it may tend to dissipate from a lack of oxygen.
We can check ourselves, also, for yet another self-defeating way of thinking. That is the thinking that “I can’t change. I’m a worrier. It’s a part of me. It’s just the way I am, and I have to live with it.” The more we stick with that rigid way of defining ourselves, the less we believe we can break the worry habit.
What if, instead of protesting, criticizing or evaluating our emotions, we could respond in a non-reactive, neutral way when we have an emotion? I am talking about simply noticing the feeling, and then accepting it as a reality. I am asking whether it’s possible for us to notice the emotion and not allow it to create any secondary emotion, or judging thought, or any further stress.
You can test this for yourself the next time you have a worry or an anxious moment. Take time, if possible, to sit quietly and calm your mind and body with the practice of meditation, prayer, rhythmic breathing, soothing music; maybe exercise would work better for you. Notice what happens. After observing the emotion, and not adding anything to it, the emotion may dissipate all on its own. This can happen simply because you are not feeding negative energy into it.
You may be wondering about specific fears, like phobias. The good news is that phobias can be treated with great success. Numerous methods exist to help people who have particular fears like fear of crowds, public speaking, and flying.
The truth is that anxiety itself will never disappear completely. It is an ongoing presence in our lives, because it is a product of uncertainty, and life is full of uncertainty. Rather than trying to eliminate it – by fighting it or denying it, both of which are unproductive responses – we can take a realistic approach: to live with it and to accept it as a reality. When we choose that course, we allow it to resolve by attrition, because we are no longer feeding energy into it. As I’ve implied, unlike the fear of the monster under the bed, anxiety doesn’t go away forever. But when it takes its proper place in our lives, and not a place of influence, it is far easier to manage.
So I pose the question: can we tolerate uncertainty? The more comfortable we can be, knowing that much of life is unpredictable, the less anxiety we feel. The more comfortable we are with uncertainty, the more flexible we can be, and the more easily we can adjust when stressors show up. The more we resist uncertainty, the more anxiety we feel; and when we are anxious, we are blind to solutions and have difficulty adjusting.
If you are someone who has struggled with excessive worry and stress, anxiety or fear, I assure you that help is not only possible, but is readily available. It would be an honor for me to share this help with you. When you are ready to manage the stress that comes from anxiety, worry and fear, please feel free to reach out for a no-cost consultation by calling 219-309-3928.