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Sitting with Fear

What can we do with fear and panic?

As we know from previous articles in Traversing the Inner Terrain, we are not made to live fearlessly. Though there might be a lot of social pressure to live your entire life without any fear, it is simply not realistic—not as long as we are on this side of the living experience. So, what can we do when fear comes up like a giant claw dragging us down to some kind of internal hell, a torturous place where there is terror every where we look?

Whereas running from our fears or pretending they are not there only represses them so that they grow bigger down in the unconscious until some trigger exposes them to us again; sitting with our fears allows them to speak to us. It is when we hear what our fears are saying that we might be able to see how irrational some of them are. It is when we hear what they are saying that we are able to self-assess. It is when we hear what they are saying that we can talk back to these fears and learn how to self-soothe.

Panic comes as an intense period of terror. We are often irrationally afraid that we will die during times of panic. But if we can focus on our breathing, and sit with the fear, we not only calm down slowly, but we learn what our fear is telling us. Then once we have achieved some modicum of calmness we can begin to argue with the fear. Recognizing that it is completely irrational helps us to calm down all the more.

Sitting with fear looks like this: Focus on your breathing. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Just let the fear be. Don’t try to make it go away, don’t try to force yourself to calm down, just breathe. Let the fear rise and fall with your breathing. Perhaps if you are panicking you can count to six as you inhale and as you exhale. This means that the fear is sitting right beside you as you breathe. You are allowing it to be, but you are focusing on your breath. As you calm some, you turn to look at the fear and you see it sitting right there beside you. What does it look like? Can you formulate a metaphor for it? Can you give it a name?

Andrea Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

At some point you may wish to write down your thoughts about this fear. Where did it come from? When was the first time you felt it? Were you raised in a home in which there were multiple traumas? Did you grow up repressing a lot of fear? Was there a lot of punishment in your home? If so, perhaps some of your fears are learned fears. You learned to be afraid as a way of coping. You learned to be afraid because that was the response your family of origin most elicited. Or perhaps you had a more recent trauma or set of traumas, to which your brain is still reacting. Or perhaps you are not reacting to trauma at all, but to old messages about your self, your worth or your image. Getting clear on exactly what your fear is saying is very important.

Sitting with and examining your fear in these ways allows you to step back into the observer mode. You are now not the reactor; you are the observer. Being the observer means that you are just sitting quietly watching, listening and attending. It is from this position of observer, that you can begin to move into the nurturer mode. Once you have seen, heard and understood what the fear is saying, there are likely some emotional responses. Perhaps you are even feeling empathy with your self. Perhaps you can see how hard its been for you and you can begin then to nurture yourself in some very practical ways.

Self-soothing is self-nurturing. What soothes you? Is it certain kinds of music? Dance? Walking? Talking to a friend? Running? Exercising? Lighting a candle? Meditating? What specific things soothe you? You may have to experiment for a while to see what really does soothe as opposed to what doesn’t really do the trick. Then begin to put these self-soothing, self-nurturing activities into your daily routine, so that you can always sit with your fear and then self-soothe, anytime.

Since it is not realistic to be fearless—even though society may tell us that that is the goal—we need to develop ways to deal with fear that allow us to be whole. Perhaps if anxiety is a constant problem, medication can also be added to your daily routine. But that doesn't mean that we can just ignore the fear and it will go away. Rather we still need to address it, either in therapy or just by doing the work as above or both. Either way, wholeness doesn’t come from spitting ourselves in half by sending our fears into the unconscious (repressing) or just pretending that we are not afraid. Wholeness comes by allowing all messages to be heard and responded to. We can learn to sit with our fear long enough that it begins to tell us how irrational it is, then we can learn to self-soothe.

More from Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC
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