Do you struggle with feeling anxious? You’re in good company. I’ve dealt with it personally, have treated a long list of anxious patients in my medical work, and regularly help coaching clients navigate stressful, fear-provoking situations and transitions.
One of the worst things about fear is that it’s scary. I’m a naturally anxious person. I prefer to avoid that feeling of my heart racing, my chest clenching, my breath catching in my throat. I can’t fathom why some people chase after ways to scare themselves (scary movies, jumping out of planes, roller coasters, etc.). No thanks. I hate feeling afraid. If you’re an anxious type, you probably do too.
It really helps to learn to distance yourself from that primal, up-close experience of fear.
You can learn to take a step back. You can do things that prevent you from getting swallowed up by how scary fear feels. You can get your head up out of the water. You can put into by perspective the (real or imaginary) thing that sucks you into a spiral of fear.
Here are some things I find helpful:
1. Gather information
Whenever a patient or client expresses a problematic fear, I ask questions. You can do this for yourself, too. Process and analyze your fears with a trained counseling professional. Talk it through with a wise friend. Or, just get your fears down on paper. (BTW if you’re really struggling or anxiety is new to you, it goes without saying that you should talk to your doctor or other professional about is – this is not meant to replace their advice)
What are you afraid of?
What, specifically, is it that you are worried is going to happen?
Are you actually, really at risk? What’s the (realistic) worst-case scenario?
Why does a certain experience provoke fear in you when it is happening?
What is the probability that the thing you fear will actually happen?
Is there anything you can do to increase your chances of a positive outcome?
What can you do to make the situation less scary for you, or to make you feel better?
Sometimes there’s a good reason for your fear. You’re in a truly dangerous situation. In that case, you need to evaluate what course of action you need to take in response to the real danger.
In most cases, though, things aren’t anywhere as dangerous as they may vaguely feel in your racing or panicking mind. It can be very helpful to get your fear out of your head, into words or on paper. This puts the circumstances in the right perspective.
2. See your fear as (most likely) normal, or relatively common
When clients are share with me how terrified they are of something, whether it’s an upcoming move, a job change, a calculated risk, or an unfamiliar obstacle, it’s useful to (truthfully) tell them that it’s normal or common. A lot of the time, we expect to navigate a significant change or challenge while feeling calm and collected. Hardly! It’s normal to be apprehensive about lots of things; in fact, it’s to be expected.
Even if you have fears that are part of a medical condition, such as OCD, you still share the same type of fears, obsessions, or behaviors with a very large group of people. You’re not alone in your experience. Lots of people have overcome it, with help.
If you are anxious about something, what might be normal, or common, about your experience?
I’m unusually scared of spiders. I’ve found that when I get into a situation that triggers me, it helps to remind myself of others who share the same phobia. Some are worse than I am. I once saw someone climb onto a counter and refuse to come down, for hours, until they were sure the spider was dead. I felt valiant by comparison, ha!
Normalizing your fear, even if some people just don’t get it (and maybe never will), puts it into perspective. It also helps to negate the shame you may feel about being an anxious person. I often feel embarrassed when I’m afraid of something, if the person I’m with is weirdly brave or calm. Then I’m judging myself for being “weak”, on top of being scared.
Let it go, and let it be okay that you’re scared. Be kind to yourself about it. Accept this part of you, it’s OK.
3. Get into your left brain when feeling anxious
Years ago, I was in a very stressful relationship. I got help from a coach who specialized in helping people navigate this specific relational circumstance. I had some symptoms of PTSD related to it. My coach taught me that when I talked about specific aspects that upset or scared me, I would emotionally “spin” in my right brain. I’d feel a wave of negative emotions, and would sometimes start to spiral into a vortex of upset. I was safe and talking to a safe person, but my fear response would still take over.
She taught me that in those moments, I could pull myself out of the emotional right brain “spin” by getting concrete. She’d ask me specific questions, that required me to get back in my left (thinking/planning) brain. Journaling can also have the same effect.
Another professional also taught me that I could pinch my arm, or focus on something specific in the room around me (a scent, the feel of the chair, the colors of the painting on the wall), to get back into the present moment. A moment where everything was actually just fine.
4. Don’t avoid what you’re afraid of
I’ve written about this before. When you feel anxious and afraid, the fear center in your brain gets a message that a certain thing or situation is a threat. If you run from what makes you anxious or fearful, this reinforces your brain’s belief that you should be scared of that situation.
On the other hand, when you successfully face what you’re afraid of, you weaken that link in your brain between your fear and that situation. You’ll be less likely to be scared next time. You’ll get a win for your confidence too.
Of course, there are some things we really should run from. Most run-of-the-mill fears don’t pose an actual threat, though. It would do you well to dive in and prove to your brain that things are safe after all.
5. Let your fear sharpen you
Have you had the experience of being afraid, but refusing to run away? It’s a great feeling. Inside, you say “No!” You grit your teeth, clench your fists (for real or just in your mind). You refuse to let the fear stop you. You can even leverage that fear for extra energy or drive, as you determinedly do that thing that you need to do.
When fear raises its head, it can also motivate you to get clear about your goals.
So you’re scared.
How might that be preventing you from reaching a really important goal?
What do you need to do, to make sure that your fear doesn’t stop you?
Can you put your anxious feelings behind you, and keep your eyes on that important thing that needs to be done?
This is a variation on that gritty determination I described a moment ago.
Train yourself to see fear as an external thing.
Something you can observe and comment on, from a distance. You can get curious about it.
Look for things that you can learn about what scares you, that will empower you instead of holding you back.
Your fear is something that you can decide to face.
You can choose to weaken its hold on you.
After all, your fear is not you. You are so much more than your fears.