What are you afraid of? The death of a loved one? Losing your job? Walking home in the dark? Spiders? Fear takes many forms and can dominate our lives. When we experience fear, our bodies tend to react in the same way, whether we are facing a genuine threat, such as getting run over if a car is coming towards us too fast, or whether it is the psychological anxiety of a job interview or exam the next day. Our palms become sweaty, our heart beats fast, our muscles tense and our mind becomes fixated on the “threat”. This response is very useful when we are facing a genuine threat and need to use our physical resources to preserve our safety – for example, running away if someone is chasing us.
Phobias are a different type of fear, and tend to take the form of a strong aversion to a particular object or activity, which can objectively be considered to be disproportionate to the severity of the threat. We learn to fear that object or situation and our thoughts can massively exaggerate the anxiety we feel about it. It’s more difficult to tackle a phobia in this blog because the treatment tends to be quite specialised and uses a variety of cognitive behavioural tools to help the sufferer gain a sense of control over the object of their fear. However, the principle of what we need to do, which is correct the thoughts and calm the anxiety, is the same toolkit irrespective of what we are fearful of.
Getting back a sense of control over the situation does make a significant impact on the fear. That’s because we like feeling in control; to know what will happen to us, and we like security so to be told that we can keep things as they are, is tremendously soothing. Our fear of loss (of a person, a job, our own lives) may completely outweigh the probability of it materializing any time soon, but it is this underlying dread that prevents us from making the most out of the life that we are actually living, as opposed to the one in our imaginations we are desperately clinging to in the fear that it may be taken away.
Here are some suggestions for dealing better with our fear, and helping ourselves to live more fully, freely and peacefully.
- To echo the title of one of the most successful self-help books ever written – “feel the fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Feel-Fear-Anyway-Indecision-Confidence/dp/0091907071/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405353251&sr=1-1&keywords=feel+the+fear+and+do+it+anyway), allow yourself to physically feel the sensation of fear. Don’t try to pretend it’s not there, or repress it because you feel you’re overreacting and “shouldn’t” feel a certain way. Be present to your feeling, where exactly in the body you are feeling it. Try and name your fear out loud. “I am afraid of how my child will fit into her new school. I am worried that she’ll not cope, that she’ll be bullied, that I’ve made a terrible mistake in moving her. My chest is feeling tight and I’m breathing fast.”
- First, deal with the physical sensations. It’s impossible to rationalise with yourself when your body is in “fight or flight” mode. What will help you feel calmer – a walk? Reading a book? Listening to music? Meditating? Having a bath? Do something practical to make your body feel calmer and more relaxed. Breathe slowly and deeply. In general, the remedy for the stress response is action so doing something helps keep you focused and reduces the tension first.
- Now you can start to deal with thesource of the fear. Try and name it, if you can. Is it fear of the unknown? Fear of loss of control? Fear of change? Try and pin down exactly what is underlying your anxiety.
- Give yourself a good talking to. Any illusion we have over our ability to control every aspect of our lives, or to stem change, is just that – an illusion. Change is the one thing in life we can rely on. Even when we think things are sorted or sewn up, life will often throw us a curveball out of nowhere. Shake yourself out of the notion that you can determine how things will turn out in life because in all likelihood you probably can’t, but what you can control is the actions you take to put yourself in the right frame of mind; the right position in the business to achieve your potential, or the right approach to things in order to influence it.
- Trust yourself to handle it. So many of our “what ifs” come from a fear of an imagined worst-case scenario. In the example of the child going to a new school, you imagine her feeling afraid (projecting your own ideas of how you might feel onto her). What if she’s bullied? What if her new teacher doesn’t understand her needs? Often, telling yourself that the worst probably won’t happen doesn’t allay your fears, and that’s because your conscious mind still knows that it might. The only way to put it to rest is to trust yourself to handle whatever comes up and maybe even to respect that your child will handle things well too. After all, you’ve taught them well, they have done ok so far and you’ll be there to help them cope if it does go wrong in any way. Fact is, if you’ve got to this age in life, you’ve probably got through some hard times already, and if you look for it you have living proof that you are capable. You survived, and you’re still in one piece. Whatever you’re afraid of, you will handle it. Sure the chances are it’ll either never happen, or it won’t be as bad as you think, but even if it is, you’ll cope. Trust yourself.
- Even though we know we can’t control everything that happens in our life, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action in response to our fears. What could you do to move the situation forward? With the new school example, you could arrange to meet the teacher beforehand. You could invite some of her new friends over for play dates in the early days. You could talk to her about her feelings – maybe you’re the one feeling scared, and she’s just excited and a bit apprehensive! If she is feeling scared, you could talk to her about practical things she could do, and create an action plan together.
- Tackle the anxiety, tension and worry by respecting that you are still likely to feel an element of it but the key is to reduce it, work it off, or talk it out. Breathe deeply whilst talking positively about your ability to handle things; remember the examples of when you have been ok before, and will be ok and that you have the confidence to cope. Exercise will release the pent up tension and good friends have often been through similar things too so they can sympathise or support you. If you need to make an appointment with a therapist and learn some cognitive behavioural therapy tools to use if your anxiety is really bad then that can be very worthwhile. If you prefer, take a look at some of the latest books on the market that may help (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Change-Your-Thinking-CBT-Overcome/dp/0091906954/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405354043&sr=1-3&keywords=cognitive+behavioural+therapy)
- Practice letting go on a regular basis. So often, we hold fear and anxiety in our bodies all day, and wonder why we have painful backs and shoulders and headaches. Whenever you remember (or set yourself an alarm if you find you never get around to it), consciously tell yourself, “I let go. I relax and let go of (whatever your fear is). I let go of trying to control the outcome. All is well.”
At the end of the day, anxiety is a natural reaction, but truly feeling in control is as much about taking charge of what’s going on in your head as it is about what’s happening in your body.