The Fear of Fear: 3 tips on how to calm the dread

When thinking about an upcoming situation or event many say that what scares them most is the anticipation of fear more than the fear itself.


So what’s the difference? Essentially one is a fantasy about something that is in the future and yet to happen whilst the other is a sensory reaction to something that is happening here and now. Both, one could argue, are as a result of negative mental content about the self – “I can’t cope”, “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t handle failure or rejection”. Whether it’s a fantasy about the future or a difficulty happening right now the same stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are released into the body as the mind signals danger and prepares the body for fight or flight. Being on full alert like this can lead to sleepless nights, panic attacks and general exhaustion.

The anticipation of future fear engenders feelings that can best be described as ‘dread’. Here, it’s the fantasy of the awful feelings that accompany the situation that crowd into ones mind. One feels powerless to stop them. This might include projecting into the future and imagining the worst case scenarios or replaying past situations over and over and from different perspectives as if to figure them out. The problem is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, other than in the mind, memory and imagination. So all that happens is that we get lost in an illusion but with all the real feelings of fear.

With all this mental time travelling the mind is stretched between two imaginary worlds, which drains our mental and physical energy and is a sure recipe for stress and worry.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Here a few quick ideas for when the fantasy of fear strikes;

1. Unplug from the future and the past. Bring yourself into the present moment. The here and now is the only true place and time that actually exists and the only reality that really needs your full attention. Therefore the first thing to do is just notice – “Ah yes my mind is now in the future or the past”. Next, come back to the present by focusing on your breathing, your body sensations or something in front of you within the physical environment. This might simply be the ground under your feet or an external three-dimensional object. Then see how long you can remain present with this before your mind takes you off again, which it will. This is the nature of mind and so you’ve got an ongoing fight on your hands, as we all have. It’s a life-long practice. Learning the art of meditation is a great way to train yourself in how to tame the mind. If all fails app games on your smartphone are a good way of distracting your mind for some time during intense periods of stress.

2. Welcome the fear. For many people this is a bit of a stretch and you might yell, “What??!!! No way, I want it gone!!” This is understandable, but given that fear and anxiety does happen and is an unavoidable human condition you might like to entertain the notion of accepting the reality and working with it. Here, you can put worrying about the future on hold and just wait for it to happen. This does not mean discontinuing to work on what is causing the fear and acquiring tools to further support yourself. It means that you learn to expect fear and then attempt to live alongside it. As such, you’ll realise that it is possible to coexist alongside fear and that fear and non-fear can happen simultaneously. An example of this might be a presentation at work – your heart might be pounding, you might be shaking and sweating, you may be going red, your voice and breathing might be restricted. Whilst this is happening your ego will be labelling these experiences as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. Your ego’s nature is to seek and cling onto perfectionism, certainty and safety. Meanwhile, another part of you is getting on with delivering the presentation. This is fear and non-fear coexisting. By giving space to your fear in this way you ‘let it be’ and as result you may have space in which to generate some compassion and kindness for that scared part of ourselves, which is like a frightened child. How would you speak to a frightened child?

3. Step out of thinking. This is what meditation masters over thousands of years have strove to achieve. As such it’s much easier said than done. However, there is great power and simplicity in understanding that you don’t actually HAVE to think all the time. At our current stage in human evolution we have all conditioned ourselves to be driven by our thoughts. The truth is that thinking is a wonderful gift that helps us solve problems and create the world around us. Conversely, the curse of thinking is that we often create problems within our selves. The philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, which perfectly encapsulates how we currently and firmly identify with our thoughts – THINKING IS US. However, if we turn that around, “I am, therefore I think”, thinking becomes a part of our human experience rather than the totality of it. Thinking is just one of our six-sense faculties, which we have learned to over use and over identify with. So when you’re next lost in your fantasies (thoughts) about the future it’s helpful to know that, firstly, this is just your thinking faculty that is running the show. Secondly, you don’t HAVE to think. You can step out of the flow of thinking, as if it’s a fast flowing river, onto the river bank and rather than be swept away by it watch it flow past. Most of the time you feel you have no choice in whether to think or not. Generally we all have very busy minds. However, taming your minds is no easy task and takes time, perseverance and patience but is absolutely achievable. The important thing to become aware of is that you are in charge, not your thoughts. Thoughts are your workforce whilst you are the CEO.

I hope these quick ideas will be helpful whenever you next find yourself feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of the future. For further information about how to further deal with fear and anxiety please check out my other website –

www.psychotherapy4london.co.uk

Insomnia – ‘A rude awakening’

It’s 10 o’clock in the evening you’re tired and having not slept much the night before you’re convinced that you’re going to sleep like a log. You climb into bed but you’re too tired to read so you turn out the light. As you wait for sleep to come and carry you off into oblivion the realisation that it’s not happening slowly dawns and after changing position a few time you’re suddenly wide awake. This can’t be happening – how is it possible?

The following day is a mess. A constant sense of disconnection and tension runs throughout the body combining with total exhaustion to generate feelings of irritation, anxiety and depression. Your mind feels scattered and it takes all your energy to focus on the simplest of tasks. By lunch time you’re at your wits end. It seems that everyone else is full of energy but by late afternoon you’ve found some inner resource and you make it to the end of the day. To your horror the same thing happens again that night and then again, and then again. Eventually you’re convinced you’re losing your mind, that you’re ageing prematurely and the tiredness you feel inside is there on your face for all to see.

In the early hours of the morning when everything and everyone seems to be asleep. Everything that is except you. You believe you’re the only one in the universe unable to sleep and this is a desperately lonely experience. In fact feeling alone is probably the pre-dominant feeling when living with insomnia. If you have a partner chances are they sleep like a baby and this, of course, further amplifies your torment.

At some point you decide to take action and frantic trips to the doctors soon arm you with various pills beginning with ‘Z’ or ‘X’ but you find they make little difference and leave you with side effects that leave you feeling edgy and polluted.

By now everything feels polluted and increasingly stressful. Your work, your family, your relationships. You keep on going through sheer determination but because it doesn’t appear to be an illness and you have no visible injuries you don’t feel you can complain and that keeping it to yourself is the best option. Besides who would understand?

Next stop is the herbalist, followed by acupuncture, massage and hypnotherapy. Each work initially but eventually you’re back to square one. As you hop from therapist to therapist a well-meaning friend suggests it might be best to stick to one treatment at which point you explode and they experience the full brunt of your frustrations.

To the background of whale song and the scent of lavender you desperately search for that hidden pathway into the lost kingdom of sleep. Wearily you leaf, dry and swollen eyed, through the various leaflets you’ve gathered offering numerous techniques that promise to help with insomnia, all of which you’ve yet to try. Money is running low so you need to tread cautiously.

One of these leaflets came through your door years ago and has been en-route to the recycling ever since but some how it managed to avoid the pulping machines and as such has made its way from pile to pile. Smoothing out the crumpled and stained paper you read about an ‘Opening the heart’ workshop held at a local Buddhist centre. Whilst the workshop has long since passed you feel drawn to the theme, particularly since insomnia has left your heart feeling like a bedraggled and frightened bird. You find yourself googling the centre and discover they have ongoing workshops around similar topics at reasonable costs. Something inside stirs and gingerly flutters its tired wings.

Something about the language used in the books you subsequently buy on Amazon tunes you into a different attitude to the lack of sleep you so desperately crave. Now, instead of tossing and turning in the anguished hope that sleep is just around the corner, you break the rhythm of despair with stillness. Just stillness. In the darkness you observe your breath as it enters your body and as it exits. You observe your body as it lies there. You observe the darkness and you notice the thoughts ‘I want to sleep!!’ and then let it go. However, shortly after that you chase after it, grab hold of it and lose yourself in the restless war on sleeplessness. More and more, though, you’re able to come back to detaching from the frustrations and the pain of ‘no sleep’.

Slowly you wake up to the understanding that you are not insomnia. Insomnia is painful and you are not this pain. You become more interested in the Buddhist notion that the purpose of life is to wake up, to become conscious. After another slumber-less night you reason, “If this is the purpose of life you can forget it!!” But eventually you learn to be kinder to your tired body and your weary mind. You notice your clawing mind desperate for sleep and you begin to forgive your unsleepable-self. Sometimes this illuminates the way back to the mysterious kingdom of sleep even only for a brief visit.

It’s an odd parable but could it be that through the terrible and debilitating experience of insomnia we could actually learn how to wake up?