Aaron comes into therapy because he’s stymied by constant fear. He hates his job, but won’t look for a new one because he’s afraid of job interviews. Whenever he’s in a social situation and sees someone he’s attracted to, he avoids him completely for fear of being rejected. He wants to join a gym, but won’t do it because he’s afraid that people there will judge him for being overweight.
As we look closer at his many fears, what becomes clear is that what Aaron is most afraid of is being afraid. He won’t go toward anything that evokes anxiety because he’s learned to believe that the experience of fear – the sense of being in danger, the heightened awareness, the increased heart rate, the adrenaline surge – is something so painful and unbearable that it must be avoided no matter what the cost. To make matters worse, he is deeply ashamed whenever he’s afraid, because he has absorbed the male conditioning that to feel fear makes him weak and cowardly. His strategy for handling fear when it comes up is to berate and argue with himself – to tell himself that he’s being irrational and stupid, that he should just get over it, and so on. Not surprisingly, this just makes him more anxious.
I suggest to him that he practice a new strategy. I tell him “Instead of avoiding fear, why not accept that it’s going to accompany you whenever you take risks or try something new? Why not make friends with it? Why not learn to invite it along for the ride?”
The idea behind this suggestion is that feelings aren’t emergencies. Fear signals to us that we’re in danger, but most of the time when we experience it, we aren’t really in imminent danger at all. Our highly evolved forebrains make it possible for us to imagine all kinds of threats which aren’t immediately present. Our brains are notoriously good at conjuring up dreadful scenarios involving illness, aging, abandonment, loss and rejection. Above all, we fear death. Imagining these things can evoke the same bodily threat response as a real crisis, but when we’re afraid in response to our thoughts there isn’t anything we can do to protect ourselves because we aren’t actually in any real danger.
So we all live with a certain amount of anxiety- a free-floating dread of the uncertainties and dangers of life. Most of us are afraid of our anxiety, because it’s painful, and because it leaves us feeling helpless, so we’ve developed strategies for getting away from it – our denial and wishful thinking, our distractions, diversions and entertainment, our alcohol and drugs.
Over time, Aaron begins to learn a new relationship to his fear. The idea of treating it as a normal part of life, even as a welcome companion on the journey is a new one. Gradually, he learns to become a kind of connoisseur of his fear, to pay mindful attention to all the sensations he feels in his body when he’s afraid, to breathe into fear, to give it his full attention, and even to treat it with respect. He finds that, when he practices this kind of mindful attention, his fear of fear begins to loosen. Being afraid remains an unpleasant experience, but it is no longer intolerable. He begins to relate to fear rather than from fear. He learns to distinguish between threat responses that are generated in his mind and responses to actual dangers in the world. He also acquires a deeper appreciation of the fact that no experience of fear lasts forever; that each one is just temporary discomfort.
Most people aren’t too different from Aaron. For most of us, our most commonly recurring fear is the fear of fear itself. The simple secret for managing this form of fear is to stop seeing it as the enemy; in fact, to get to know it. Courage doesn’t mean fearlessness. It does mean learning not to run from the experience of fear. The more we run from it the more powerful it seems. But when we turn to face it with mindfulness, curiosity and compassion, we find no solid and formidable enemy, only waves of feeling and sensation which, like the changing weather, arise, stay a while, and then move on.