“I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain
When we avoid fear and anxiety through experiential avoidance, the results can be a sense of disconnection from ourselves as well as an increase in fear and anxiety. There is no doubt that life can be frightening at times. There are many threats that we may face and many things that may go wrong. To make matters worse, our minds are often not helping us when they anticipate imagined fears.
It is not surprising that we feel afraid and anxious in a world where we are routinely bombarded with frightening images on television and harrowing stories in the news. The “good” news is that a great many of these fears are out of your control. That’s right. No matter how much time you spend fretting and drowning in anxiety, there is not a thing that you can do about the outcome. When you are fearful of things that are in your control, that’s also good news because you have the power to alter the outcome. Either way, there is a striking upside.
When fear and anxiety is so strong that it begins to interfere with your life in some meaningful or powerful way, it is time to learn how to approach your fear and anxiety, rather than avoid it. Reflect on the ways in which fear and anxiety typically affect you. How do you usually respond to real or perceived threats?
Fear & Anxiety Inventory
Adapted from “The Mindfulness Solution” (Siegel, 2010) is a fear and anxiety inventory to help you assess how these emotions affect you. Rate the following statements on a scale of 1 to 5 (1= rarely, 5= most of the time) according to how often they happen:
- I feel tense/uptight.
- I feel as if I can’t quit until I complete a project.
- I worry about little things.
- I imagine the worst case scenario.
- I have persistent headaches, neck/back pain, insomnia, or digestive problems.
- I feel my heart beating quickly, feel shaky, or have shortness of breath.
- It is difficult to sit still.
- I worry about what others are thinking about me.
- I am insecure about my intelligence, looks, or level of success.
- I get bored easily.
- I worry about big things like health or money.
- I’m hesitant to ask someone out for a date or a favor.
- I’m nervous before speaking in public.
- I’m uncomfortable around spiders, snakes, dogs, or other animals.
- I’m uneasy around angry people.
When we are able to recognize and understand what events/circumstances typically induce fear or anxiety and have learned about mindfulness and mindfulness exercises, we can deal with those fears much more effectively. It is when people are unaware or disconnected from their typical fearful or anxious states that there is greater difficulty in handling them. “Know thyself” in this way.
By learning how to apply mindfulness practices to your daily life (and specifically to fear and anxiety), you will be able to more effectively change the way that you view yourself and the situation. Mindfulness allows us to cultivate an observing self, which is extremely helpful in allowing disengagement and detachment from being in a state of cognitive fusion.
It may seem counterintuitive to consider befriending your fear and anxiety… these are the emotions you don’t want. Believe me, I don’t enjoy or “want” to feel anxious or fearful any more than you do. The trick is to learn the paradoxical effect that happens when we fight back against our unwanted emotional states. When we resist them vehemently, they stick around.
Siegel (2010) points out that “mindfulness practice offers an alternative approach: to be aware of our inner thoughts and feelings so that we can consciously decide whether or not to act on them … Over time, we make friends with more and more of the contents of our mind, until there are few internal surprises left to frighten us.”
Mindfulness Exercise: “Dive Into Fear”
The following mindfulness exercise from “The Mindfulness Solution” explains how to practice diving into fear:
- Begin by becoming comfortable in your body. Focus on your breath.
- Proceed to scan your body and mindfully note any areas of tension. If you do not notice areas of tension, actively choose to think of something that makes you feel tense or provokes anxiety. Do this for one or two minutes.
- Now that you have created tension in your body, see if you can make it grow. You can do this by focusing on your physical tension or continuing to imagine the anxiety-provoking thought, feeling, or image.
- Create as strong of a feeling as anxiety as you can so that you can practice bearing it.
- See if you can maintain this intense level of anxiety for 10 minutes. Really sit with it.
- Now that you have experienced this tension, bring your anxiety down by refocusing on your breath and bodily awareness.
How was this exercise for you? Different people have different experiences with sitting with fear and anxiety. It can be very intense and difficult for some. It is important to continue to sit with the uncomfortable feeling, and not jump out of the exercise as soon as you start to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, it is only reinforcing the fear and anxiety.
The process of learning how to mindfully sit with fear and anxiety can be difficult and slow. Remind yourself that important things worth doing often take time and effort. It is worth it. Take a moment to imagine your life free from the paralysis or disconnection of fear and anxiety. Remember that frightening things in life are inevitable, but the way that you respond to those events is a choice.
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Siegel, R.D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Featured image: if it makes you fly… by notsogoodphotography / CC BY 2.0