All of us will experience fear on occasions. It is a normal healthy biological reaction warning us of perceived threat or danger. However, some people experience fear more frequently, some even on a daily basis, perhaps manifesting as generalised anxiety or in the form of panic attacks.
Often people cope with fear by ignoring such feelings when they surface or by denying them. Many people try to push the feelings away, because they don’t like them and are not prepared to accept them, while others engage in wrestling and battling them as if they were the very threat itself, instead of the messenger.
What I am going to suggest, which might seem a little radical when all you want to do us get rid of these feelings, is to “make friends with your fear.” You see, the problem is, the more you try to battle, ignore or push these feelings away, the more they will surface. When you try to banish them to the deepest, darkest dungeon in your castle, no matter how hard you try, you will still hear them calling you. The harder you try to get rid of them, the more you will experience them. Why? Because you are focusing your energy on them and when you do this, rather like trying not to think about an annoying song or a tune that goes round and round in your head, it will simply magnify your experience.
The first thing I want you to know is that these symptoms cannot harm you. I will say it again, these symptoms cannot harm you. You will not have a heart attack, stop breathing, you will not faint and you will not lose control or lose your mind. Fear simply mobilises your body to be ready to fight off a real or imagined foe.
I will show you how, using a technique called mindfulness, you can achieve what you desire, that is, not to be overwhelmed by your fear and instead to bring about a new relationship with your fear. So, instead of viewing fear as something that should be suppressed or eliminated, we will be using mindfulness to bring about acceptance.
“The way of mindfulness,” says best selling author and mindfulness master Jon Kabat-Zinn,” is to accept ourselves right now, as we are, symptoms or no symptoms, pain or no pain, fear or no fear. Instead of rejecting our experience as undesirable, we ask, “What is the symptom saying, what is it telling me about my body and my mind right now?”
What he is suggesting is that we listen, take a closer look and get acquainted, instead of reaching for the diazepam, rescue remedy or whatever it is we grab in our immediate desire to make it go away.
Using mindfulness and harnessing quiet gentle breathing we begin to make friends with our fear. As Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, “We allow ourselves, for a moment at least, to go right into the full-blown feeling of the symptom. This takes a certain amount of courage…dip your toe in…and move a little closer for a clearer look.”
We begin to approach our symptoms “as we would a shy animal sunning itself on a grassy bank.” Ever so gently, becoming aware of our feelings about the symptoms as they appear. Perhaps we feel anger, frustration, anxiety or despair. We may say to ourselves, “Why now, not again or oh no, I cannot bear this again.” The key is to look as dispassionately as possible, with a non-judging mind. We need to accept that whatever we are feeling, it is here now. It is already with us, already part of our experience in this moment. The key is to accept our feelings as they are, opening to the fear in a kindly way rather than continually trying to block it out and overcome it.
When you experience symptoms simply observe and watch as they unfold. Try not to react, responding as if the symptoms were a wild animal out to get you. Instead, calm, tame them by making friends. Observe your moment-by-moment experience and view it as a “process” instead of getting caught up in the “content.” As you do so, you will discover that there is a “flow” of changing sensations and responses. Allow yourself to be curious, interested in a dispassionate way in the quality of the sensations and your experience, rather than get caught up in the distorted imaginations you tell yourself. These fantasies about what may or may not happen simply fuel fear, anxiety and despair.
It won’t be easy, as resistance will re-emerge many times and your first response will be to block it out, but with practice you can learn to resist this habitual behaviour and you will learn to interrupt the cycle of tension, reaction and suffering and replace it with peace, awareness and kindness.
As you become intimately acquainted with the nuances of your experience you will gently tame that which you wish to banish. You will find that instead of visiting you regularly, stirring up terror and suffering, the occasions of fear will change, they will no longer be completely overwhelming; the intensity and duration will diminish, and you will be able to smile instead of tensing rigidly. You will begin to break free from that which bound you.
Here is a simple befriending mindfulness exercise:
Make yourself comfortable in your body. Spend a moment loosening or adjusting your posture. Whether you are standing, sitting or lying down.
Now place your attention on your breathing. Notice the in-breath, notice where the breath enters your body, the nostrils… Notice how at the end of the in-breath the breath naturally starts to subside; follow the breath. Try to find that momentary pause between the in and the out-breath, the out and the in-breath; a moment of stillness and space. Notice how without having to do anything, the breath rises and falls naturally.
Encourage a tender, gentle awareness to permeate the breath, so the breath softens any resistance and with full intention, breathe in kindness and compassion, breathe out tension and fear.
When we are aware that what we are feeling is fear, we make friends by saying:
“Breathing in – fear I know you are there.”
“Breathing out – I accept you, I will take care of you.”
Simply practise this over and over, remind yourself that these feelings will soon pass. By developing a calm, mindful relationship with your body you will learn to let go of fear, anxiety and panic.
Until next time, Steve
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Steve Clifford Senior Accredited Integrative Psychotherapist. Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.
Burch, V. (2008). “Living well with pain & illness: The mindful way to free yourself from suffering,” Piatkus.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). “Full catastrophe living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation,” Piatkus.