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

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Self-Doubt – Part 2

A Cultural Norm?

Before I began researching self-doubt I’d often heard it referred to as useful or important and that without it one might become arrogant. This often struck me as being at odds with the harsh, critical and self-limiting reality of self-doubt. If the opposite of self-doubt were arrogance no wonder it seemed to be such a widely accepted norm.

However, what if true self confidence has nothing to do with being an extrovert, demonstrative or even successful. What if it has everything to do with simply trusting oneself? As such the opposite of self-doubt is not arrogance or an inflated sense of confidence but actually trust and self belief.

When I trust in myself the world around me feels like a safer place to be, my faith in others is stronger and I’m more resilient to deal with life’s challenges. When I don’t have belief or faith in myself I’m faced with self-doubt wherever I go. The world is full of uncertainty and I feel both vulnerable and a victim to a world where others have all the power, success and happiness.

Internal querying of ourselves and the world is a natural and normal mechanism, which can also be regarded as our moral compass that assesses what the right thing to do or say is. Self-doubt is part of this mechanism but it turns the querying into criticism. Because of the important moral aspect it is no wonder we confuse critical self-doubt with being so important. However it is self-regulation that is important. Self-regulation is the internal assessment process that supports our journey through our lives.

In my next blog I outline the two aspects of self-doubt and self-regulation the purpose of which is to provide a simple tool for empowering ourselves and navigating beyond the self-limitation. I argue that self-regulation is the important device that assesses what is right for me as well as the world around me whilst self-doubt is a defensive position that keeps me limited and withdrawn from my life.

Understanding self-doubt as a cultural norm means we can step beyond it and make different choices. As such we can shift our attention away from unhelpful internal dialogues and towards that which helps us grow and live more fulfilling lives.

New Year’s Eve Anxiety : Endings and Beginnings

photoIt’s December 31st 2013 and tomorrow it’ll be 2014. Whilst one year ends the next one begins and this is a pivotal time for reflection, looking back and for contemplating the future. This time of year can also bring with it a great deal of anxiety – from the pressure of having to have fun and being part of a group as we see in the New Year in to dealing with the aftermath of Christmas and the dread of returning to studies or work.

Questions might arise such as; What am I doing with my life? Where are things going? What have I achieved? What should I be doing? These are all queries that put enormous pressure on us to do or be something other than we already are. Then, of course, when this time of year roles around again and we haven’t transformed our lives as we promised ourselves earlier in the year we focus on what we haven’t yet done rather that what we have done and so the cycle starts over again.

In our culture we have leaned to judge the end of things as often negative but, whilst endings can bring with them a natural degree of sadness and worry, we forget to allow room for the other side of the coin, namely beginnings. If we are mourning the loss of a loved one it is only natural that we allow ourselves time to grieve and mourn their absence. Other endings such as loosing a job or the end of a relationship can, similarly, take us into a place of despair and hopelessness. We dwell on the feelings of rejection or loneliness, which means our recovery takes longer or our confidence is knocked entirely.

Instead, we could to allow both truths to co-exist understanding that, whilst something ends something else begins. This is the law of change that exists throughout the entire universe. Incorporating this universal truth into our lives means allowing ourselves to fully experience whatever the end of something brings up for us. At the same time we can turn towards the other reality where a new beginning is already taking place. In doing this we don’t allow ourselves to deny our wounded feelings nor do we completely lose ourselves within our challenging emotions. Instead, we allow both to run side by side until we are ready to let go of the ending process and embrace the possibilities that the beginnings also offers us. In doing this we enable hope and optimism.

So whether you’re coming to the end of a project, a relationship, a job or simply contemplating the end of the year spend some time also allowing space for beginnings by asking yourself – what is beginning right now, who am I from this moment on? If you find your mind travelling into the future and dwelling in fear gently bring it back to the present moment.

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Alexander Graham Bell

5 Christmas tips for Social Anxiety

For those with social anxiety this time of year can bring added levels of stress and worry. From the office parties to the family get-together, anxiety levels are usually very high.

Self-consciousness, shyness and embarrassment are the common experiences of social anxiety. It also brings with it feelings of shame and much of the added stress comes from concealing this from others in order to fit in.

One of the great fears for someone with social anxiety is being put in the spotlight. Therefore sitting around a table in a confined space can be the source of huge stress.  I remember dreading dinner parties and eventually avoided them at all cost.

Another challenging component to social anxiety is the after effect of a social occasion. As someone who has struggled with this type of anxiety in the past I recall how I would obsess about what was said, how I came across and then beat myself up for not being good enough. If it had been a dinner party I’d tell myself that I wasn’t interesting enough and, of course, expect never to be invited again.  These days I’m much more relaxed about situations like these and not so bothered about how I come cross. Over the years I’ve learned to be kind to myself, manage my fears better, to show interest in others and to know that I am welcome.

On the back of my personal experience and my work with clients who struggle with social anxiety here are my 5 tips for surviving the various Christmas events;

  1. Know that you are welcome. Keep telling yourself this even if you don’t believe it. Understand that you are wanted and accepted. It’s sometimes enough for you to just be there and be yourself as much as you can.
  2. Understand that others are also afraid. It always appears that other people are relaxed and confident. Some are but most aren’t. Most people want to be liked and are fearful of rejection.
  3. Know that whatever you feel is a choice. If you don’t feel like joining in – smilingly decline. Stay interested in what is happening around you and allow yourself to say no if you’re really not ready. Saying no doesn’t have to be unfriendly or negative.
  4. Fake it ’till you make it. This sound like a dreadful idea but can be very effective. Imagine yourself however you’d like to be then take on that role. It can allow you to step beyond your comfort zone and discover new ways of being.
  5. Show interest in others. This is a great way to engage with others and make a good impression. Unless they also have social anxiety many people love being given attention, to have that space and to talk about what interests them. If you repeat back what you’ve heard in order to clarify this is even better as there is nothing better than truly being heard and understood.

Overcoming social anxiety can take time but it is possible as I have experienced. The key ingredients for me were; getting interested and curious about my fears instead of running away or covering up, being kind to myself and understanding where these fears come from, allowing others to be confident and relaxed without comparing myself, knowing that I’m welcome, valued and finding ways to move beyond all the self-doubt to know there is nothing wrong with me even if I do feel anxious.

For more information on social anxiety and weekly groups running in London check out – http://www.sashgroup.org

Loneliness Vs Solitude

It’s December 23rd and it’s the time of year when getting together with friends and family or perhaps cosy-ing up with a loved one is what many of us will be planning to do. It’s a wonderful time of year but also comes with a pressure and strain that can lead to that tinseled dream turning into an icy nightmare.

After many years of trying various tactics that have included both avoidance and throwing myself into it completely, I finally feel at peace with Christmas. I can now let it all happen around me without judgement or anxiety. However, in all my experiments I have found that I most enjoy Christmas when I spend it alone. In this space I can enjoy the indulgence of it, generally relax and take it all at my own pace.

Being alone can be a difficult space to inhabit in which a sense of deep unease and restlessness arises as we search for ways to fill that space with distractions such as – hours of watching television, emailing and texting or drinking and eating much more than we would do normally. We want to feel busy and connected and when alone with ourselves we can experience a profound boredom and loneliness.

For this reason being alone doesn’t come easily to many of us. For natural introverts it may be second nature while for other it takes practice and a little more effort. Part of the problem is that being alone is regarded, by our society, as something to move away from and generally encourages us to move more towards socialising and activities. Yet if more of us learned the art of solitude rather than the perceived sadness of loneliness there would be less of an ‘either / or’ situation and being alone could be regarded as an empowered personal choice.

Solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is a choice in which to be fully present with our selves, whether that is in activity or inactivity and stillness. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an internal state of need in which we yearn for connection with someone or something outside of ourselves. This state is not a bad thing unless we turn it into something desperate and grasping. Rather, loneliness can direct us towards the needs within our heart and from there we can calmly align ourselves with what our hearts yearn for.

Meanwhile, solitude invites us to accept our aloneness completely, get still and enjoy the peace that is there inside ourselves beyond all the noise, stresses and distractions. Here we can re-charge and then, when we’re ready, move out into the world. We now feel more ourselves and more able to connect with our world in a genuine, authentic and fully alive way that is good for us and good for others. All we need do is give ourselves wholehearted permission.

Hyperhidrosis – ‘The body of water’

What is Hyperhidrosis?

Hyperhidrosis describes a condition when the sympathetic nervous system along with sweat glands throughout the body are over-active. As a result the hands, head, feet and sometimes entire body can sweat very easily and in some cases constantly.

Human beings sweat. When we’re hot, nervous or have been exercising it’s part of the body’s natural cooling system and when we’re stressed our bodies heat up as adrenalin pumps through our system preparing us for flight or fight mode. For most of the population this is something that just happens and whilst it may sometimes be unpleasant it passes and is soon forgotten.

Meanwhile for some, sweating is excessive and can be a constant and uncomfortable experience. At this level it is often diagnosed as hyperhidrosis. There are many products now on the market and whilst Botox has become quite widely used there are also a new generation of pharmaceuticals that apparently control how water in the body is released. Another more drastic action is a major operation known as a sympathectomy. This severs the nerves that are responsible for making the hands sweat and can be effective but may also have quite drastic and lasting side effects. These can include excessive sweating elsewhere throughout the body, eyelid drooping as well as going through the trauma of the operation and it simply not working. Whilst there is much more understanding about this condition compared to 20 years ago many people with hyperhidrosis are often desperate for a way out of their sweating experience and so may be at the mercy of some quite harmful interventions that could still be in their infancy and understanding around long-term use etc.

For those who sweat moderately it may be difficult to appreciate how difficult the experience of excessive sweating can be. For many individuals hyperhidrosis can be embarrassing and create a constant sense of self-consciousness resulting in anxiety, shame, depression and social withdrawal.

You may have a friend or family member who might have mentioned something about their sweating and perhaps you noticed what they were talking about but most of the time you probably wondered what all the fuss was about. However, for those who experience it there is often an ever present anxiety around – going into hot rooms, which clothes to wear, unease at being touched or having to shake someone’s hand etc. Hyperhidrosis can lead to social anxiety and isolation and because most people who suffer from it often feel misunderstood by those around them or feel they have to hide the condition it can be a very lonely experience.

There is much more awareness of hyperhidrosis today with support groups springing up as well more varied treatments available. Connecting to others with the condition is a good way to feel supported and understood. One such network group is http://www.hyperhidrosisuk.org run by a dedicated and hard working group of volunteers.

My story

Having experienced hyperhydrosis from a young age I later opted for a sympathectomy and underwent the trauma of this major operation. The good news is it worked but whilst my hands stopped sweating to the extent they used to the rest of my body went into overdrive. This is the side-effect I’ve learned to live with and through my re-training as a psychotherapist I’ve explored within myself what might have been the caused. I’ve concluded that there are no clear answers to this query but the exploration has lead me towards how the body deals with trauma as one possible explanation. Could it be that at some point in our early life something within the sympathetic nervous system was switched on through some impactfull experience and has not been switched off? This, though, may not explain hereditary influences. An example of this is a colleague of mine with hyperhidrosis who noticed that, after a couple of months of having a baby, her son’s hands were sweating suggesting he may have inherited it from her. The one thing I have come to learn is that at this point in time we just don’t know the definitive cause. For me, the attention has to be in the reality of the present moment and how I can maintain a constructive attitude to both my body and the condition.

How can counselling help?

Counselling can’t offer a way to stop the sweating but it can provide a space in which to discuss the shame, anxiety and stress that is experienced as a result. It can also help build a better relationship with our body where excessive sweating can lead to feeling disappointed with it and generally out of control. Counselling may also help us learn from our experience rather than remaining stuck in a cycle of avoidance and stress where we may feel at war with our bodies and as such with the condition.

Our bodies are approximately 70% water. With hyperhidrosis water leaks from the body through our skin. Our bodies can’t help it and learning to be kind to ourselves and our bodies regardless of the flaws is an important step towards coping with hyperhidrosis or any other uncomfortable condition for that matter.

Acceptance and tolerance is the key so that whatever decisions we make, whether its taking medication, having an operation or leaving the medical profession out of it. From a place of insight and love for ourselves we must make informed decisions and learn how to act with discomfort rather than react against it which only results in stress and anxiety. Mindfulness may be a helpful tool and I’ve found Jon Kabat Zinn’s book ‘Full catastrophe living’ very helpful.

All about Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety is the fear of people and in particular social situations. These situations can include work scenarios as well as at social gatherings. People with social anxiety often don’t know they have it and can struggle for years before understanding their fearful reactions.

At the end of this article you’ll find some links that can offer some extra support or information.

About labels

For me, getting my head around the idea that the difficult feelings I experienced in certain situations might be social anxiety was actually a great relief. It had got to a stage in my life where I was beginning to avoid socialising as the stress was often overwhelming. Defining my social difficulties gave me the opportunity to really examine my anxiety, where it came from and what I could do about it.

How do you know you have social anxiety?

Does the invitation to a dinner party fill you with dread and fear? Rather than looking forward to meeting new people do you wrack your brain for an excuse not to go? Do meetings at work leave you feeling traumatised? Do you spend your time in meetings worrying about being put on the spot? Do the feeling you experience in these and other situations include; heart pounding, shortness of breath, self-consciousness, blushing, shaking, sweating, panic and feelings of being trapped? Do you also beat yourself up after these kind of events and then experience feelings of guilt, shame and depression? If this sounds like your experience then getting to grips with social anxiety may be good news.

What’s good about it?

Understanding why we struggle is a huge step in the right direction.  A step towards being kind to ourselves and away from beating ourselves up followed by self imposed isolation. Social anxiety can be a very lonely experience. For some people, though, understanding that they just prefer their own company and simply to give themselves permission to enjoy this is all that is needed. Remember, there is no right or wrong way for putting ourselves where we really want to be. However, for the majority who struggle with this type of anxiety they find themselves caught between how they would like to be and how they actually are. This is also good news as it point to how you really could be. The next step is how to get there and this can take a while but is worth the journey and the effort as I am testament.

What’s the cause?

People have social anxiety for a variety of reasons. My personal opinion is that somewhere down the line in our past we have taken on board that we are not ok as we are and this has lead to self-consciousness. This may not mean that we were criticised or bullied, as is often the case, but that we may also have been over protected. In the latter case it is often when individuals leave home that the problems start. In the former it it is generally our school where we experienced trauma as a result of sustained bullying and rejection.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is a phobia and is one of the most common forms of phobia. When someone experiences a phobia such as claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) they experience panic and stress similar to those of social anxiety. These symptoms can be found in all forms of phobia. When any animal is in danger three responses arise; fight, flight or freeze. Adrenaline is produced and prepares the animal to fight or flight. With freeze the same reaction occurs but the stress is so overwhelming that the body is paralysed. This state is sometimes regarded as catatonic. The same survival responses occur during the experience of phobia but the reality is our live are not in danger yet our bodies and brains seem to believe this to be the case and react accordingly.

What can you do about it?

Psychotherapy can be a great help in talking about your experiences and what may have happened in the past. Body-based psychotherapy works for many as does EMDR which is designed to release trauma from the mind and body. Joining a social anxiety group can also be a great way of supporting yourself. Knowing that I was not alone in my experience helped me. Social anxiety effects many people of all ages and from all backgrounds. The important thing to remember is that anxiety is part of all our lives and experiences and is a vital feeling but it doesn’t have to rule our lives – we can make friends with it and move towards where we really want to be.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about individual therapy or check out the UKCP directory of therapists.

For social anxiety groups in London check out the social anxiety self-help group.