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This Is How Fear Distorts What We Know

Part 2 of an ongoing series on "Deconstructing Anxiety."

Sarah Richter Art/Pixabay
Source: Sarah Richter Art/Pixabay

“You know you’re enlightened when 10,000 people call your name and you don’t have to turn your head.” — Zen saying

In our last blog post, we discussed some of the ways in which fear manipulates our perception. In so doing, it locks us into a belief that following fear’s guidance is essential to secure our safety and pursue our good. In fact, as we have been discussing throughout this series, following fear’s guidance inevitably backfires, creating, maintaining, and exacerbating fear. This series of posts on “Deconstructing Anxiety” is intended to help give insight (through a thorough deconstruction) into this fact, that we may practice the principle of “doing the opposite," reversing our usual, habitual responses when fear comes along, and finding a path to freedom and fulfillment.

The first four of the manipulations of fear, as discussed in the previous post, are: 1) the hypnotizing effect of fear 2) the lie of fear 3) the demand of fear and 4) the ruminative quality of fear. In this blog post, we discuss the final four of these manipulations: 5) the impatience of fear 6) the future orientation of fear 7) the time distortion of fear and 8) the self-generating quality of fear.

5. The Impatience of Fear

Following from the demand of fear (see last blog post) is the impatience of fear. Not only does fear demand that we find a solution to a threatening situation, but it also insists we find that solution now, even if the situation is far off in the future. Without fear, we realize that it is useless to dwell on a problem until we know whether it will actually come to pass and, if it does, what the actual experience will be like. But fear, like a child having a temper tantrum, screams at us until we take action. Waiting, it seems, is intolerable. This is why A Course in Miracles says “Only infinite patience produces immediate effects” (Foundation for Inner Peace, 1975).

6. The Future Orientation of Fear

Fear is always an anticipation of the future. It is never about what is actually happening now. But it manipulates our perception by having us imagine—and internally experience—that future as if it were happening now. The demand of fear fills us with adrenaline to try to stave off the problem, increasing the feeling that it is happening now. But with nothing real to work with in the present, we are left frustrated, despairing, and still more anxious that we cannot get control.

7. The Time Distortion of Fear

The time distortion of fear is a particularly uncomfortable aspect of it. Fear makes time seem to move very slowly, almost coming to a standstill. This is because we are afraid that we’ll never get out of the situation—that we are trapped in a changeless hell. And without change, the movement of time grinds nearly to a halt. The hypnosis of fear helps to freeze time as we stare at our projections on the “wall” and fail to consider what happens after the threat has passed (see previous blog post). We feel locked in this scene and therefore locked in time. When fear leaves, time flows fluidly again and we realize the distortion.

8. The Self-Generating Quality of Fear

Finally, fear is self-generating. It is in the nature of anxiety that we get anxious about having anxiety. Because we know our strategies for dealing with anxiety can’t give us the guarantee of safety we wish, we become anxious about experiencing this helplessness. This, of course, sets the whole process in motion again. It is also why our attempts to relieve ourselves of fear can actually generate more of it.

Fear weaves all of these manipulations together when seducing us in its ways. We become caught in the lie of fear, for example, imagining all the terrible things that could happen as if they were happening at once. This compels us to stare fixedly at that picture, creating the hypnosis of fear. This hypnotizing effect gives rise to the ruminative aspect of fear, as we review over and over the many scenarios we are being hypnotized by, looking for a way out. And all of this generates fear’s demand that we try to do something about the problem. When we realize we cannot get the control we seek, the impatience of fear has us scramble even more frantically for solutions, reinforcing and magnifying the entire process.

It is with an awareness of these manipulations—seeing them as manipulations—that we can start to loosen their hold upon us. For instance, if we challenge the time distortion of fear and remember that the problem will pass, we spontaneously wake up from the hypnosis of fear. The impenetrable wall we felt powerless in front of is seen to be floating in a vast universe of readily available alternatives. We see this because we have imagined what is beyond the wall, discovering other ways of interpreting and responding to the situation. We understand the future orientation of fear is a distortion as well; by visualizing what will happen when the fear passes, we recognize that the frightening future we have been imagining is not actually happening now. This silences the demand of fear, no longer compelling us to find an immediate fix. The ruminative and self-generating qualities of fear also give way as the illusory nature of the fear is exposed.

We want to become intimately familiar with these manipulations, catching them in the act of trying to ensnare us, finding the moment of choice before we “buy into” their illusions. With such awareness, we can stand back from and point to the process, saying, “It’s only fear, distorting our perception.”

Edited excerpt from Deconstructing Anxiety: the Journey From Fear to Fulfillment by Todd Pressman, Ph.D., publisher: Rowman and Littlefield.