Fear and Anxiety

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  • September 2, 2014

If you struggle with anxiety, you are not alone. Excessive anxiety and worry is a common problem and one that can be treated. This problem can take the form of panic attacks, generalized anxiety, phobias, posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, and agoraphobia.

Excessive anxiety can ruin your life. It can cause you to avoid relationships or destroy the ones you have, disrupt your sleep, make you feel frightened, alone and afraid to leave your home, and restrict your normal activities. Anxiety can interfere with successful career progression, rob you of your peace of mind, and erode your self-confidence. It can lead to depression and make you feel like life is not worth living.

At the core of every anxiety problem is a highly sensitive arousal system as well as a fear of the very essence of life itself. Your sensitivity to arousal is an attribute of your inherited, biological, autonomic nervous system. This system is triggered by internal and/or external cues and can result in increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dry mouth, hypersensitivity, hypervigilance, sweating, trembling, headaches, and physical agitation. These symptoms are often accompanied by intense feelings of apprehension, fear, dread and terror, feelings of losing control and impending doom, and irrational uncontrollable thoughts.

Excessive fear and anxiety can be treated. You have to take control of your body, take control of your mind, and take responsibility for your life. It sounds like a tall order but it isn’t really; and it doesn’t have to be done all at once.

If you suffer from excessive anxiety, you were likely born with an overly sensitive arousal system; one that is easily triggered by internal and external stressors. You can learn how to control your body’s response to stressful situations. With effort and practice, you can learn to control and manage all of the above symptoms. Your psychologist can teach you techniques to invoke the relaxation response in your body. These techniques will enable you to lower your heart rate, regulate your breathing, cool down, and settle down. Regular exercise, yoga, and meditation are wonderful ways of being physically healthy, making friends with your body, and learning how to control your mind and body. Your psychologist will also encourage you to talk to your medical doctor about ways he/she can assist you as you begin to tackle your fears.

Next, you have to learn to take control of your mind and take responsibility for your life. There is no way around it; you have to face your fears. There is no easy way to do this, but you can do it one step at a time and you don’t have to do it alone. If you don’t know what it is you’re afraid of, therapy can help you to find the source of your fear. Many people do know what is at the root of their fear; they just don’t know how to go about dealing with it. The problem seems to be too big and seems to involve unraveling their whole life.

Here are some thoughts on how to begin. First, realize that your self-confidence and your peace of mind are what are at stake here. Yes, the stakes are high. You can either continue to lose your confidence and feeling of comfort or you can increase your sense of joy and contentment. It all depends on your willingness to confront your fears.

If you keep running from your life, you will have no life at all. It may sound simple but it is true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Your first step must be a conscious decision to stop running from yourself. How can you be confident in yourself if you are too afraid to even be with yourself or get to know yourself? How can you have peace of mind unless you are willing to sort through the contents of your mind?

Secondly, learn to forgive yourself. When you are overwhelmed with anxiety or fear, you allow your mind to run away with you. Are you aware that you are running away from yourself? To take responsibility for yourself means to own up to all of the good and all of the bad that has gone into the making of whom you are today. There isn’t one adult in this world that hasn’t been touched by the pain and darkness of life. We’ve all done or said things we’re not proud of – you are no different than anyone else! This is what it means to be human. Forgiving yourself mean accepting your humanness.

Third, come to terms with your personal history and accept that every little bit of it has been necessary to bring you to this point in time today. Make peace with yourself and get comfortable in your own skin. This is the meaning of true self-confidence – looking at all of the parts of you, being absolutely honest with yourself, and being gently compassionate with yourself.

Fourth, see yourself as a work in progress and then get to work! Identify the qualities that you value and then seek to embody them in everything you say and do. Each and every day you can practice being kinder, more generous, more joyful, more forgiving, more honest, more patient, more helpful, or more loving. As you begin to practice these qualities, and observe your own behavior, thoughts, and feelings, you will come to know yourself well. You’ll then know what it is you need to do more or less of.

Fifth, learn what is yours to control and what is outside of your sphere of influence. You can control yourself; beyond that, you’re pushing your luck. Don’t waste your time ruminating over the past, worrying about the future, or trying to change others. The past is done – accept it and let it go. The future is being creating at this moment. Stay in the present and focus on what you can do right now to deal with the issues in your life.

Leave everyone else alone. You have your work cut out for yourself just looking after your own life. The only exception is for parents of younger children. You do have a responsibility to care for your children and to help them to learn how to be responsible for their own lives. Always remember that one of your most powerful tools as a parent is the behavior you model for your children. Practice what you are trying to teach your children.

Sixth, trust in the process of life and in your ability to handle whatever comes along. You may not handle it well but you’ll manage; you’ve done it so far. Fear is often a full-blown resistance to change. To live in fear is to be dragged through life with your heels dug in and your arms folded across your chest. Quit struggling. It’s making things worse. Stand upright on your own two feet, open up your arms, and consciously make the effort to embrace life. The only difference between fear and excitement is your attitude!

Finally, accept your mortality. In the grand scheme of things, our lives pass by in an instant. Try to mentally prepare yourself for whatever may happen during the final stage of your life that ends in death. Yes, you will die; there is no other way out. It may be tomorrow or it may be a long time coming. Yes, you may be sick for a while before you die. Remind yourself that there have been tremendous strides in palliative care in recent years. Doctors, health care professionals, and families now work closely together with the person who is dying to help make this transition as gentle and as free from suffering as possible. Most people don’t have to suffer from physical pain. If they suffer from emotional pain, it’s self-inflicted. Work through your fears and you will have alleviated much of your emotional pain.

The reputation of fear is greatly exaggerated. Refuse to allow fear control you. Confront your fears one step at a time, one fear at a time. Open up to life instead of shutting down. Love yourself in all your humanness. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take control of your mind, your body, and your life. Accept what is. Believe in your ability to handle whatever comes your way (you have no choice anyway). Do this once and you will know what it is to conquer your fear. Do this twice and you will have gained confidence and peace of mind. You will see fear for the cowardly bully that it is, and it will never have the same power over you again.

Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist