How To Manage Fear and Quiet Anxious Thoughts
I was planning my honeymoon and it terrified me. It was one of the biggest anxiety triggers I’d faced in ages — the thought of flying for 12 hours across the globe without my children. I get a little jittery flying with them as well, but I couldn’t shake the idea that something could go horribly wrong and we’d leave our girls behind to face the world without us. The images were so heartbreaking and terrifying that I had begun to contemplate not taking this trip, the chance of a lifetime. My fears were trying to convince me the risk was too great. So I, a practiced anxiety sufferer, attempted to rationalize my fears away. I tried to do whatever I could to block them out. To fight. But I was losing.
I’m better now and completely looking forward to our trip with great excitement instead of trepidation. My fear hasn’t been erased, however, it has been put in its place, reduced down to a manageable (dare I say ‘normal’) size. The transformation came, as most breakthroughs do, in multiple therapies. One was EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, my experience with which I will write about down the road. The other was a role playing therapy, which I hated! But, while I was totally uncomfortable with the role playing therapy, it set my mind on a similar idea.
We hear so often that fear is our enemy, that it kills our dreams, derails us from enjoyment. But what if we stopped making fear a monster. What if we turned our mind toward a new image: Fear is a friend, albeit a loud one, with a good heart but less than ideal solutions. She’s misguided at times, surely, but maybe because she’s always getting bags thrown over her head in attempts to silence her concerns. Wouldn’t you raise your voice if you were constantly shushed?
Fear is a built-in response. Though ancient, its purpose is not some vestigial tail, useful only eons ago to protect us from predators in the night. It is a useful part of our body’s complete survival system even in modern times … if we listen mindfully and keep it in its place.
Fear’s response can reminds us to get in the habit of buckling our child’s seat belt or scheduling a visit with the doctor. Fear can raise red flags in unhealthy relationships or incite concerns that move us to seek help for a friend in need. Fear is not a villain we need to conquer. It has an important role in our lives and we should respect it. Unchecked fear, however, fear that trickles down into every thought, fear that runs out of control compared to the situation at hand, is another matter.
If you find that your Fear is yelling at you, sending your thoughts shaking, cowering in a corner, over situations that you know do not warrant such intensity, maybe it would be a good time to learn how to listen to your fear. I don’t mean to unfailingly take its advice “maybe you shouldn’t take that trip.” No way. Listening does not mean you let your fear control you. Fear, however, has a tendency to try to be the loudest voice at the table, so we forget about the other voices we can listen to — our experiences, our rational understanding, our calm self to name a few. We can, however, start a conversation. Let fear speak its peace and consider what to do with it from a new perspective of respect rather than something with which to battle.
My concerns about not wanting to orphan my children are valid, but by taking some time to listen to my fear, ask questions, sit in it and observe it for a while, I could see that I was reacting to some fairly intense triggers. I couldn’t put my life on hold and hide in a bunker, never taking any chances to live the life I want for myself and my family. I thanked my fear for her concerns and then I created some space for the other voices (think meditation and watching our thoughts without judging) — we never know how much time on earth we have for the things we want, we cannot plan to avoid what will come to us. By creating space in listening to this Fear as a friend, not an enemy, I could lessen the intensity of her shouting. In this post, I talk a little more about this idea.
You can apply this to any situation you feel being overrun by fear. Be curious about the root of your reactions. Be curious about any triggers that move beyond the initial fear. Ask yourself how true these fears feel and if you can imagine other scenarios. Imagine how you might discuss this with your best friend. You can work on this by yourself or with a therapist.
This exercise of imagining fear as a friend, helps us to take a step back. You can begin to see yourself as separate from your fear and as merely one aspect of many in your store of emotions. If you begin to observe fear from a little distance, it starts to settle back into its place. And remember, have compassion for your friend Fear, she’s trying to do her job.