Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a New York City-based therapist and author of three books including The Complete Marriage Counselor and Love Lessons from Bad Breakups.
Do fear and anxiety keep you from dealing with unavoidable situations and emotions? These expert tips will help you overcome a paralyzing pattern of behavior
It is human nature to avoid emotions that scare us. Who wants to walk directly into what promises to be a painful experience? Except that by continually avoiding looking at the ‘boogeyman’ within, you become hostage to the monster. Typically this involves hiding from any potential stressor that might cause upset and engaging in endless distractions. Alas you are also hiding from potential challenges that can lead to growth and joy. Plus, you can’t hide forever from fear. It’s going to strike, despite your best efforts to suppress it. And it is likely that it will strike at a time when you most need emotional equanimity.
The good news is that once you face your fear—and give the boogeyman air—rather than shove it into a distant compartment of your brain, it begins losing the ability to rule you and dictate your decisions.
Studies on Anxiety and Fear
A study published in the journal Science by researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) does a good job summing up how the brain actually has to re-experience a fear in order to extinguish it. Here’s what the researchers did: They put rodents into a small box and gave them a mild shock and then took them out. Over a long period, the researchers returned the mice to the box but didn’t administer shocks. Initially, the mice froze, but with repeated exposure to the box, and no additional shocks, they eventually relaxed.
For humans repeated exposure to the event(s) that created the trauma can help the anxiety subside. For example, the treatment for fear of flying is often exposure therapy that involves slowly and repeatedly being exposed to the object that is feared in a controlled environment.Article continues below
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For example, the person who is immobilized at the thought of flying might, in an exposure therapy treatment, might begin by reading a story about a plane crash, and gradually work up to going to an airport without boarding a plane, then boarding a plane without taking off, then finally taking a short flight…
With repeated exposure in a safe place, such as a therapist’s office, to the event(s) that created the trauma, the anxiety level subsides.
Facing Your Fear
My patient *Doreen suffered one of the worst traumas imaginable—her twin sister committed suicide. Fourteen months later another tragedy occurred: *Beth, a cousin to whom Doreen had once been extremely close, jumped off a bridge to her death. Doreen dreaded—and feared—the mourning process. She was afraid of losing herself to overwhelming grief. Instead of dealing with her emotions, she found what felt like the perfect coping mechanism: non-stop solo travel to the far corners of the globe. During her rare periods at home, she felt lonely, but found numerous reasons to not attempt forging friendships.
After one particularly adventurous trip, she slumped into my office. “Sherry, I hiked in the Amazon and had a session with a shaman and yet it felt so hollow. I wanted to share the experience with someone…with Beth.”
Doreen’s distress convinced her that it was time to stay home for a few months (her bank account would thank her!) and devote herself to what she feared most: facing herself.
I suggested she might make new connections through a social networking website called meetup. A few times she registered for an activity, but at the last minute experienced anxiety symptoms so intolerable that she stayed home.
During one session, I asked, “Why does letting someone become close scare you so much?”
She closed her eyes and after a few minutes’ of contemplation said, “If I let myself be vulnerable, it will kill me when the person leaves.”
“Why do you assume the person will leave?”
“My sister and Beth left—everyone does.”
“And yet here you are still standing. You survived the worst that could happen. How could attending a pottery painting event be harder?”
The next day she registered for a group hiking event. At our next session she confessed the morning of the hike she experienced such severe anxiety symptoms —sweating palms, shaking lips, heart palpitations—so uncomfortable, she almost didn’t go. “I told myself, ‘Sherry says fear is a momentary emotion. If I run from it I’ll feel worse later.’”
She had such a fabulous time on the hike she impulsively volunteered to arrange the group’s next outing. Doreen recalled, “As soon as I got home I got so anxious that I reached for the phone to rescind my offer but I made myself breathe and continued to go about my day.”
Soon Doreen had an active social life for the first time in years. Yes, she still experienced anxiety, but now she had coping mechanisms that allowed her to find relief and overcome the anxiety. “I’m still really afraid of losing people, but I’m more afraid of ultimately never finding what I really crave—community.”
Tips to Work Through Your Fear and Live Your Life
If you are experiencing overwhelming fear or anxiety, especially a phobia, please consider working with a therapist. Additionally, here are some suggestions that have helped many of my patients work through being hostage to their own fears:
- Allow yourself to sit with your fear for 2-3 minutes at a time. Breathe with it and say, “It’s okay. It feels lousy but emotions are like the ocean—the waves ebb and flow.” Have something nurturing planned immediately after your 2-3 minute sitting period is completed: Call the good friend waiting to hear from you; immerse yourself in an activity you know is enjoyable and engrossing.
- Write down the things you are grateful for. Look at the list when you feel you’re in a bad place. Add to the list.
- Remind yourself that your anxiety is a storehouse of wisdom. Write a letter, “Dear Anxiety, I am no longer intimidated by you. What can you teach me?”
- Exercise. Exercise can refocus you (your mind can only focus on one thing at a time). Whether you go on a short walk, head to a boxing gym for an all-out sweat session, or turn on a 15-minute yoga video at home, exercise is good for you and it will ground you and help you feel more capable.
- Use humor to deflate your worst fears. For instance, what are some ridiculous worst-case scenarios that might happen if you accept an invitation to deliver a speech to a crowd of 500 people? I might pee in my pants at the podium *** I will be arrested for giving the worst speech in history *** My first boyfriend (girlfriend) will be in the audience and heckle me.
- Appreciate your courage. Doreen would tell herself during difficult times, “Every time I don’t allow fear to keep me from doing something that scares me, I am making myself stronger and less likely to let the next fear attack stop me.”
Perhaps the most important coping tool is to be kind to yourself. What advice would you give to a best friend about those negative inner voices that whisper: Be afraid. Don’t try anything new? Do as you advise others—don’t listen to the negativity; be your own best friend.