I have lots of experience with anxiety. I've dealt with it personally, have treated a long list of anxious patients in my medical practice, and regularly help coaching clients navigate stressful, fear-provoking situations and transitions.
One of the worst things about fear is that it’s scary. As an anxious person who prefers to avoid the all-too-familiar feeling of my heart racing, my chest clenching, my breath catching in my throat, I can’t fathom how some people chase after ways to scare themselves (scary movies, jumping out of planes, roller coasters, etc.). No thanks. I hate feeling afraid. If you’re anxious, I bet you do too.
I’ve found though, that it really helps to learn to distance yourself from that primal, up-close experience of fear. You can learn to take a step back, to not get swallowed up by the scariness of fear. You can get your head up out of the water, by putting in perspective the (real or imaginary) enormity of what’s threatening to suck you in, to take you down.
Here are some things that may help:
1. Gather information.
Whenever a patient or client expresses a problematic fear, I ask questions. You can do this, too. Process and analyze your fears with a trained counseling professional, talk it through with a wise friend, or just get your fears down on paper.
What are you afraid of?
What, specifically, is it that you are worried is going to happen?
Are you actually, really at risk? What's the (realistic) worst-case scenario?
Why does a certain experience provoke fear in you when it is happening?
What is the probability that the thing you fear will actually happen?
Is there anything you can do to increase your chances of a positive outcome?
What can you do to make the situation less scary for you, or to make you feel better?
Sometimes there’s a good reason for your fear. You're in a truly dangerous situation. In that case, you need to evaluate what course of action you need to take in response to the real danger.
In most cases, though, things aren’t anywhere as dangerous as they may vaguely feel in your racing or panicking mind. It can be very helpful to get your fear out of your head, and into words or on paper, so you can put the circumstances in the right perspective.
2. See your fear as (most likely) normal, or relatively common.
When clients are sharing with me how terrified they are of something, whether it’s an upcoming move, a job change, a calculated risk, or an unfamiliar obstacle, I've found it helpful to (truthfully) tell them that it’s normal or common. A lot of the time, we expect to navigate a significant change or challenge while feeling calm and collected. Hardly! It’s absolutely normal to be apprehensive; in fact, it’s to be expected.
Even if you have fears that are part of a medical condition, such as OCD, you still share the same type of fears, obsessions, or behaviors with a very large group of people. You're not alone in your experience. Lots of people have overcome it, with help.
If you are anxious about something, what might be normal, or common, about your experience?
I’m unusually scared of spiders. I’ve found that when I get into a situation that triggers me, it helps to remind myself of others who share the same phobia. Some are worse than I am. I once saw someone climb onto a counter and refuse to come down, for hours, until they were sure the spider was dead. It made me feel valiant by comparison, ha!
Normalizing your fear, even if some people just don’t get it (and maybe never will), puts it into perspective. It also helps to negate the shame you can feel about being an anxious person. I often find myself embarrassed when I’m afraid of something if the person I’m with is weirdly brave or calm. That makes it worse, as now I’m judging myself for being “weak” on top of being scared. Let it go, and let it be okay that you’re scared. Be kind to yourself about it. Accept this part of you, it's OK.
3. Get into your left brain.
Years ago, I was in a very stressful relationship. I got help from a coach who specialized in helping people navigate this specific relational circumstance. I had some symptoms of PTSD related to the situation. My coach taught me that when I talked about specific aspects that upset or scared me, I started to emotionally “spin” in my right brain. I’d feel a wave of scary emotions, and be at risk for spiraling down into a vortex of breathless upset. I was safe and talking to a safe person, but my fear response would still take over.
She taught me that in those moments, instead of getting mowed over by a tidal wave of fear and upset, I could pull myself out of the emotional right brain “spin” by getting concrete. She'd ask me specific questions, that required me to get back in my left (thinking/planning) brain. Journaling could also have the same effect.
Another professional also taught me that I could pinch my arm, or focus on something concrete in the room around me (a scent, the feel of the chair, the colors of the painting on the wall), to get back into a more concrete present moment. A moment where everything was actually just fine.
4. Don’t avoid what you’re afraid of.
I’ve written about this before . When you’re afraid, the fear center in your brain gets the message that a certain thing or situation is a threat. If you run from what you’re afraid of, this reinforces your brain’s belief that you should be scared of that situation.
On the other hand, if you successfully face what you’re afraid of, you weaken that link in your brain between your fear and that situation. You’ll be less likely to be scared next time, and you’ll get a win for your confidence too.
Of course, there are some things we really should run from. Most run-of-the-mill fears don’t pose an actual threat, though. It would do you well to dive in and prove to your brain that things are safe after all.
5. Let your fear sharpen you.
Have you ever had the experience of being afraid of something, and refusing to run away? It’s a great feeling. Inside, you say " No!" You grit your teeth, clench your fists (for real or just in your mind). You refuse to let the fear stop you. You can even leverage that fear for extra energy or drive, as you determinedly do that thing that you need to do.
When fear raises its head, it can also motivate you to get clear about your goals.
So you’re scared.
How might that be preventing you from reaching a really important goal?
What do you need to do, to make sure that your fear doesn’t stop you?
Can you put your fear behind you, and keep your eyes on that important thing that needs to be done?
This is a variation on that gritty determination I described a moment ago.
Train yourself to see fear as an external thing. Something you can observe and comment on, from a distance.
You can get curious about it.
You can learn things about it that will empower you instead of holding you back.
You can face it.
You can weaken its hold on you.
After all, it’s not you. You are so much more than your fears.
Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas