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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Coming to the end ..

Today is the ‘End of time’ according to the ancient Mayans. Whilst their calender ends today after nearly five and a half thousand years there was nothing to suggest an apocalypse yet across the globe thousands of people are preparing for our imminent conclusion. There is much debate about why it ends so abruptly but endings tend to have that element of surprise and the unknown about them.

Even those who were completely unaware of the calender and its significance, are now drawn into it’s web due to our mass global media. On the internet there is talk of people in China frantically stocking up on candles lest the sun be extinguished. Meanwhile, a friend of mine is gathering with others on a hill in Glastonbury to mark the end of time and celebrate the winter equinox. She assures me that she will be thinking of me should the earth come to a grinding halt.

Within therapy we often work with endings. The end of relationships. The death of a loved one. Loss of health. The end of a job. Within the difficulties that all these situations present there is also the beginning of something, even if it’s the beginning of the grieving process.

At the end of a therapy session I tell my clients that we have a few minutes left before we need to pause. Whilst it’s an end in itself our work is often on-going so I prefer the term ‘pause’. Eventually our work comes to an end and I like to allow a good few weeks to tie up any loose ends and review what has happened as well as what needs to happen next. In doing this we honor our work together recognising that whilst there are endings there are also beginnings.

Why talking therapy?

When I first sat in front of a counsellor and attempted to discuss the difficulties I was facing I found the experience of opening my mouth and speaking to a complete stranger both strange and profound. The counsellor patiently listened as I tried to give voice to my inner struggles and during a brief pause I was shocked to hear the words I had uttered repeated back in a calm and coherent manner as the counsellor sought clarity with sentences such as, “What I’ve heard is …” “Do I understand correctly?” “It sounds like what you’re experiencing is ..”

It made me smile to have been listened to and hearing the counsellor reflect back what I had been trying to communicate held a mirror up through which I gained understanding into my situation at that time. Within that simple interaction where words were exchanged, rambled, filtered, sifted, reflected and understood I felt a great knot of tension unraveling. Leaving that first session I felt lighter, less anxious and deeply inspired.

For this reason, and the subsequent sessions which helped me further, I decided to train as a psychotherapist and offer this service to others. I continue to find the power of putting words and voice to the challenges we face and to have these accurately mirrored back enormously transformative and healing. For many of us we have not been brought up to voice our difficulties let alone have them heard and understood so the dynamic between a talking therapist and client can be unique and create a space in which it is possible to understand ourselves better.

Psychotherapy as Art

Recently, I watched a documentary about the performance artist Marina Abramovic which followed the process of putting together an exhibition of her work at MoMA in New York. At the heart of her exhibition was a new piece of work entitled ‘The Artist is present’. In this installation there were two chairs facing each other and a table in between. In one chair sat Marina whilst visitors queued to sit in the chair opposite. Once they had settled themselves Marina raised her head and established eye contact for the duration of their sitting. The rules were simple, no talking, no physical contact just eye contact. They could sit for as long as they wished and she remained present for the entire three months of the exhibition.

The effect of this pure and still presence attracted huge attention with some visitors queuing day and night to sit opposite her. She later described how she observed the emotional states that many sitters brought, from simple curiosity to anger and sadness to love and pain. For many there was a sense of being seen for the very first time and in this encounter deep emotions were stirred.

What was it about this simple performance that affected so many people?

In our society we have created little room for just being and as a result many of us are constantly on the move in a never ending cycle of action and reaction. Here, in the center of one of the busiest cities in the world an artist sat as the art itself and observed the observers. In that inaction she brought the visitor into the present moment with her.

Later, Marina decided to have the table removed. Now the dynamic of the piece resembled the same composition as in the psychotherapy session between therapist and client. However, in therapy there is the boundary of time where words are exchanged.

Can that pure still presence manifest in the container of a 50 minute therapy session where words and language are ever present?

I believe it can and does ..

The essence of that piece and the intention of pure presence reminded me of what we attempt to do as psychotherapists and often fail through words, interventions, solutions and opinions. We know we shouldn’t but they leak out through our mouths and our body language. The piece reminded me of what I’ve experienced as most trans-formative, both as a client and with my clients as a therapist. That of being fully present with what is happening in the room and witnessing from a place of empathic regard.

I’m always amazed, as I sometimes find myself hurtling across London, at how the troubles of my day dissolved when I’m able to bring myself fully present with my clients. Sometimes that can be challenging when the troubles of the day are great but as I listened to Marina describe the pain she often experienced through sitting for long hours and observing her visitors. In this I was again reminded of how we learn to look out from beyond ourselves into the lives of our clients and sometimes it’s just about being there as fully as we can be.