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How to handle fear more effectively

I am adding here an article I originally wrote for the website "Do you panic?". http://www.doyoupanic.co.uk/ I include it here because it really is a useful tool  in dealing with anxiety.

I thought I’d write something a little more personal and less clinical today. It would not be possible to understand anxiety without saying a few words about the clinical causes first so I will cover this briefly before departing from the clinical and saying a few words about the human approach.

 One of the tasks then that the subconscious mind is charged with is survival. This is by its very nature, primitive as a mechanism, and operates “instinctively” not logically, hence the reason why feelings are often irrational and illogical. There is in every person a repository of experience which is held at the subconscious level. None of us would wish to be aware of everything that ever happened to us all at once (we would be overwhelmed) and yet it is necessary to have a record of our experience. This record is necessarily therefore stored in the subconscious area of the mind; that is to say “below consciousness”. The subconscious mind is constantly checking and pattern matching our current experience of the world against that repository of past experiences. It is important to understand that the repository of past experiences is made up not only of actual experiences but also of our subjective impressions about those experiences. What we “make” of something is often more important emotionally speaking than the event itself. So it can be understood then that even if something is not actually dangerous, we can under certain conditions still feel threatened, and once something has been labelled as “dangerous” by the subconscious mind, it then becomes something to be avoided in the future. The avoidance mechanism is anxiety. Anxiety sends a message of discomfort. That is its purpose…to make us feel uncomfortable about entering or staying in a dangerous situation. The anxiety mechanism says “Leave this situation”. Or “Do NOT enter this situation! So is it any wonder then that anxiety is so uncomfortable? The more anxiety we experience at any given time, the more we find in life to be worried and frightened about, because the mind simply decides that if anxiety is so high then we must truly be in a dangerous place and if that is the case then everything must be regarded as potentially dangerous. Thus a state of hyper-vigilance is created and we find ourselves on constant alert. We become intolerant of ambiguity. The emotionally aroused mind becomes very uncomfortable with “not knowing” and we then find that a negative feedback loop is created. Essentially what happens is that the mind feels anxiety and that anxiety makes us feel unsafe. It’s here that things tend to get worse, because what most of us will do here is worry more. Feeling unsafe is unpleasant. We then begin to seek solution to the feeling. We want the feeling to go away, so we start thinking. What could be causing this feeling?….Is it something I’ve done? Is there something wrong with me? Will I feel like this forever? Maybe I’m being punished? Perhaps I am mentally ill? What if I go mad? I might die?! What if my son/daughter loses their mother? What will happen if I can’t cope?!! What if…what if…what if?

This is analysis paralysis! What if…..what if…….what if?! Since the emotional mind is not an intellect so it does not have the intellectual logical ability to fathom the difference between what is past, present, future, real or imagined. Your continued negative fantasies about “what might happen if…….” are absorbed by the emotional mind and taken to be the world you actually live in. It makes the assessment that if you are so alarmed by the state of things and your world is such a nasty place with so many terrible things happening then it’s paramount that you must be on guard at all times! Recovery requires that the “What ifs” have to go! They are literally sustaining the cycle of anxiety, and for most panic sufferers, the biggest “What if” of all is “What if I can’t cope with the next panic attack?” What we often become most afraid of is the panic itself, and it’s this uncertainty in our own ability to be able to cope which reinforces the feelings of powerlessness which keep us feeling as though we are at the mercy of some gargantuan monster which can bring us to our knees at any moment. This is the ultimate in feeling unsafe…feeling as though out of nowhere and for no reason we can be completely disabled, and it’s this lack of certainty in our ability to cope which sustains the panic cycle. At the core of this is being afraid of the fear. 

 In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address to the American Nation contained the historic quote “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” These are timeless words indeed. Is there anything more paralysing to us than the effect of fear itself?

 You will remember earlier in the article, I was explaining that often the “experience” that we have in life is LESS important than what we “make” of it? So with this in mind, what do we “make” of our panic itself? Well…since it is SO unpleasant, most of us will make of it that it is the most important thing of all to avoid. We can quickly become terrified of having a panic attack, and if you’re following the logic, then it’s clear to see how a Catch 22 is quickly created. Panic creates anxiety and anxiety about panic creates more panic and so on.

 There is much that can be said about treating anxiety and panic, but two central concepts are relaxation and reducing negative introspection. These are the clinical perspectives. There is however, to my mind, a third crucial concept. This is learning how not to fear your fear, and this is where your humanness is your biggest asset.

 If you are a person beset by panic then in all likelihood you may feel as though you are cowering in a corner at the mercy of the monster. Here are some suggestions for re-framing that feeling in a new way. First of all, the belief (conscious or unconscious), that you are powerless, argues that your only defence is either to run (which you already know does not work), to fight (which you also will know doesn’t work), or to cower. Cowering usually seems like the only option left. There is however a completely different way of dealing with these feelings. If you’ve suffered with panic, you will undoubtedly have tried as a strategy “facing out” these feelings. This is fighting them. Invariably we’ll lose, because it is fighting fire with fire. The following strategy is similar, but be clear, it IS different. You can do this during a panicky period but it’s better still if you do it on a daily basis …little and often. Ten minutes a day will be fine. What you do is sit comfortably and quietly in a soft safe cosy space. Take a few deep breaths and if you’re able to, just close your eyes. Then being brave, and willing to tolerate the discomfort, you simply take your awareness to the area in your body where you feel the most fear or discomfort, and you give every bit of your awareness to that feeling. You focus on it wholly and completely, and you simply sit with it, quietly. Even if it is really uncomfortable, you simply sit and feel…..simply focusing, simply feeling, and simply being. Right away you have changed something. You’re not fighting it. You’re not running from it. You’re not cowering from it. You’re not trying to “work it out”. You have no agenda, other than to give those feelings your full attention. Just simply by “sitting with it”, as neutrally as possible, you are changing your relationship to that panic and anxiety. You are doing something differently. The laws of relationship remind us that we are like actors on a stage and when you change the lines you deliver then you expect that the response must also be different. Right away your subconscious mind sees that you are much less bothered by these feelings than you have been, and begins to re-appraise the situation. Your willingness to “sit” with those feelings sends a message back to that protective mind that you don’t think there’s any threat here. If you use your rational mind, you’ll know of course that those “what if’s” are largely irrational and when you look at this problem rationally you can see that anxiety is a feeling and actually can’t hurt you by sitting with it. It can be unpleasant yes, but it can’t hurt you, so it IS okay to be brave and sit with it. You should find that simply sitting quietly with those feelings will put them into a much more manageable perspective for you. You should be able to begin to see that it’s “just” tension in your stomach. Uncomfortable yes, but not the monster you had it marked up as. The metaphor that springs to mind is that in all the running and cowering we only ever glimpse distorted views of the monster, as in a quick peep over the shoulder or through the fingers. Then the imagination fills in the terrible details. It’s like a mouse’s shadow in the candlelight on the wall. It appears to be 10 feet tall; the imagination has done its worst, but when we turn the lights on we find it’s just a mouse (if you don’t like mice insert the word “cat” or something cute and fluffy!).

 We can go further too. As you become accustomed to sitting with these feelings, you can begin to feel into a clearer definition of the feeling/s. There may in fact be many feelings jostling for attention. I like to think of these feeling as “parts”. “Parts” refers to components of the personality. We all have parts of our psyche which are stubborn, warm, gentle, hostile, young, old, happy, scared etc. Part of our job as human beings is to balance as best we can the needs and relative influence of these parts, and sometimes for reasons often complicated, we can decide to ignore or oust those parts of our personality which are deemed to be threatening or undesirable. Essentially we attempt to keep those parts of ourselves at arms length- outside of ourselves. Unfortunately, this is enormously painful for those parts of our-selves which are being held at arms length since the one thing that these parts desire more than anything else is our attention. The human psyche seeks integration. It’s a natural process. So, one can begin to see that feelings are like “parts” trying to be heard, and ultimately integrated. So if there are parts of us desperate to be heard and we push these parts away by labelling them as undesirable and unacceptable, then we create more tension. We find that these parts actually shout louder in an attempt to be heard, and this shouting we hear (feel) as unpleasant feelings. So one can see then why fighting, running, and cowering from these feelings are ineffective strategies, because in those strategies we are not listening!  

Parts therapy is best undertaken with a trained therapist who can help you with the integration of parts discovered, and I add a note of caution here, that anybody with “voices” or schizophrenic/psychotic tendencies should not attempt to embark on any kind of parts therapy without the supervision of a suitably trained professional.

There is however a very effective form of parts work which anyone not suffering from the above mentioned tendencies may wish to use. (But please note the disclaimer at the end of this article - Use common sense and discretion). 

 Following the understanding outlined above, one can tune in on the needs of the feeling. In other words, as you identify that the tension you are focused on is “sadness” for instance, then you can begin to dissipate that feeling by communicating your ability to “listen”, and more importantly, by communicating your ability to “care”. If those parts of us that are carrying negative emotion need us to listen, they need even more to know that we care how they are feeling. So we can simply send the affirmation to those parts that let’s them know that we are listening and that we care. This is a very powerful tool. We can bring about great transformation in a relatively short space of time using this technique, which as I said in the beginning of this article is a “human” technique before it is anything else, because it is that essentially human emotion which does all the healing here….compassion. We need to connect with that part of ourselves which really knows how to care for someone else. A good way of connecting with this is to remember a time when you saw someone suffering and you felt that feeling of truly understanding their suffering, perhaps in a way that no one else would. If you did something to help, then that is even better! That feeling of empathy and the action that springs from that is compassion. Compassion is empathy and understanding, coupled with a desire to act, to alleviate that suffering. If you can connect with this feeling, then bring this to the part of yourself which is suffering and offer it. The real change will happen when you can really offer that emotion to yourself. It’s not pity. It’s not sympathy. It is empathy, non-judgment and understanding. It is caring and love. So as an example, using our “sad” feeling, we will go and sit with that feeling and offer that compassion and say to that part “I hear and accept that you have felt sad (frightened/angry/depressed etc) for so long, and I’m really sorry that you have had to go through that….I’m really sorry you’ve felt like that for so long”. And you just keep repeating this…feeling the words deeply as you say them ….MEANING them…..keep sending that compassion to those parts…..and if you feel other words that intuitively need to be spoken then speak them too (keep it positive!). You do this for as long as it feels real, then if you want to continue, move on …..now what is the feeling? Repeat the process. Little and often is good. On occasion the transformation in the way you feel can be massive. On other occasions it may be hardly noteworthy. Sometimes you will literally watch that part of yourself brighten up as it receives this love. Other parts may be more stubborn, but that doesn’t matter. Just keep sending that compassion. It is all healing ultimately.

Panic is being overwhelmed by feelings. By listening and caring to our feelings we can reduce significantly the ”volume” of those negative feelings and find that we are quite capable of coping with fear naturally. You may find that there are layers and levels of these feelings which need attention. Be patient. The effect, as with relaxation, is cumulative. As the volume reduces so too will the feelings of panic and order will begin to return. This is literal transformation, but what also takes place with this exercise is vitally important. You learn that you have a tool with which you can nearly always improve the way you feel. Mostly, you can expect to feel an immediate improvement in your sense of well-being by doing this exercise, and knowing that you have that can do wonders for your sense of control, because it means that you’re not powerless any more. And here, is the crux of the matter. By restoring control, you can stop the “what if’s”. Because you already know that you can DO something and if you’ve done your homework properly you will have learned that fear is nothing to be frightened of….it’s just some part of you that needs reassurance, and when you give it what it needs, then peace is restored, and perspective comes easily!

Remember that overcoming panic requires a commitment to reducing anxiety generally too, so keep to an anxiety reduction plan as part of your recovery. We only experience panic when we are too anxious generally. Prevention is always better than cure!

Disclaimer: This article is given for information purposes only. The author cannot be held responsible for any effects arising from the use of the information contained herein, and any use of the information in this article is used entirely at the risk of the user.  Persons with poor mental health should not consider using these exercises but should refer themselves to their GP for assistance.

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Copyright John Crawford 2003-2012