I was born that way and therefore...
Seeking certainty and control...
Suppressing and avoiding emotions
Believing (incredibly) distorted thinking
Adjusting to the reality of modern life
Living in the future
Escaping from what we fear
Don't confuse the two sets of effects
In most of our attempts to deal with fear, we end up exacerbating it, making things much worse. The truth is that fear can be just a passing thing and no big deal, unless we make it so.
As you read this, remember that fear thrives in ambiguity, in generalities, in undistinguished lack of details and clarity.
Fear is mainly physiological and will ordinarily pass if given a little time. Anxiety, though, is cognitive (thinking).
Anxiety is the motivator to have us "get things back in balance, in order, back to safety" now and in the future. (Of course, that would suggest that we apply rational problem solving to whatever the believed threat is, but few people do that. Instead, they do the opposite, essentially.)
Of course, as we are anxious, focusing on a potential threat, the picture of it triggers the amygdala resulting in fear - even though there is "nothing there", not in reality at least.
Ironically fear and anxiety, at least the way we deal with it, cause us to be fuzzy headed, make more errors, and be less effective, so that we experience more undesired outcomes. And those who do not know that undesired outcomes are no big deal and/or that they actually will handle them better than they think are doomed to create what they fear - until they fully accept undesired outcomes, as pointed out in that section.
The errors in understanding and/or in the strategies used are:
I WAS BORN THAT WAY AND THEREFORE...
Genetically, I'm stuck with this way of being. My alarm system just overreacts...
However, even if this was verified to be true about your genes (predisposition), "our genes are not our destiny."
There is no benefit in making that statement if you are using it to justify something. The statement only serves to further program ourselves - into a higher level of learned helplessness. (There could be a benefit if it helps you realize that you may have to work very diligently to overcome the overreactivity.)
SEEKING CERTAINTY AND CONTROL
"If I could just control everything and there was absolute certainty, then I'd be OK!"
People actually think a version of this, at various levels.
People become happier when they stop resisting reality. When people see that there is much they cannot control and that there is no way to attain certainty, they let go and accept that. Then they begin to insert into their lives things they would enjoy and feel fulfilled by.
Having said that, let me modify my assertion to state that there are several ways to achieve a sense of greater certainty (or of less uncertainty) and a sense of control. I insert this because the theoretical enlightenment of knowing the truth probably will not happen to us mortals. But we can do the next best things. (See "Sufficient" Psychological Certainty - A Quality Of Being, A Psychological Viewpoint - and one grounded in reality!) We can have the "certainty" that life actually turns out almost always, in the physical world. (See Life As A Game.) Yes, we do die, but then we don't feel bad at that point - we just end a journey that was a gift and we just experience each day as a gift, of being ahead - and then, that's it, it's over all of a sudden. Yes, we experience pain, but no, we do not need to suffer about it. See Needless Suffering. Also, we can recognize that we can't control others and even if we can't we can still have a good life. When people continue to try to control others and/or uncontrollable circumstances, they continually are bashing their heads against a wall - and reinforcing that there is a problem (which is not the case, as we just have "made that up" in our head). Stopping trying to control the uncontrollable frees up a huge amount of time to do something that adds alot to life. Just learning this one thing can free up a significant portion of your life, plus eliminate a source of irritation and learned helplessness (and feeling victimized!). See, and know, Control.
And we can also develop our capabilities (and attitudes) to cause more of our desired outcomes, which then gives us a greater sense of control. And defining control as "the ability to choose what to do to create the best of an undesired outcome and to choose happiness" opens up even more of a way of having a sense of control, which is essential to our self-esteem (and which cannot be achieved by affirmations alone!).
It is interesting to note that our prediction of how badly we will cope with a potential threat if it does happen is grossly out of whack. Overall, we deal with situations much better than we think we will and the results are often better than we think they will be, plus any bad effects tend to wear off over time.
The bottom line is that we are trying to seek something that is impossible but doesn't have to be achieved at all to be happy - but, in the process, we are making ourselves feel the opposite of the way we want. How ridiculous is that?!?
(Note that the effort to get people to accept reality lies in The Serenity Prayer; this is my modified version of it. Such a prayer should be kept available for use, possibly on a card or in your Reminders Notebook.)
Most people have tried physical relaxation to go to sleep, to overcome insomnia, but they've yielded relatively poor results. It seems insomnia is a cognitive (thinking) activity, one of worrying (ruminating) about unpleasant possibilities, generating fear, generating some adrenaline and mysteriously (hah!) staying awake.
We keep on talking to ourselves about how awful it could be if we don't solve this potential threat and then we nurture the delusion (the belief) that worrying will do some good.
You must learn with 100% certainty that continued worrying does not serve you, does not prepare you, does not solve a problem in any way. We only believe that we are doing something constructive because at least we are doing something (thinking about it) which seems better than doing nothing - but that is not true.
We are actually harming ourselves in the moment, chemicals, tension, stress, loss of doing something better with our minds. AND we are further imprinting the idea of being helpless, hopeless, or in danger in life - which then causes more fear, anxiety, and worrying and reinforces the fear - then we go loopdeloop through life feeding the spiral. Not a good idea!!!
Of course, at least 95% of what we worry about never happens, which is a testament to how poorly we predict. But we humans believe that "therefore it must work". Like I sometimes say when someone asks me what is going on, I say I am thinking away polar bears; to which they reply that that is stupid as there are no polar bears here; to which I reply "see it works!" Please be sure that that type of thinking is preposterously absurd, doubled, to the power of 10!
Just stop it! Write down or consider what comes up to see if it is worth planning and problem solving about and then stop the thought. This is a must, not an optional action (behavior) if you want to be happy in life. "I absolutely commit to never allowing myself to engage in worry. It is useless. Instead, I will deal in a problem solving mode with anything that may be a future threat and accept that life is uncertain - but OK and good in total."
SUPPRESSING AND AVOIDING EMOTIONS
We try to control the uncontrollable when we try to stop an emotion. It is true that we can identify thoughts that might cause an undesired emotion and then correct those thoughts in order not to have the emotion at all. But it is impossible to stop an emotion being caused by a thought.
In trying to stop the emotion, we are trying to deal with the "symptoms" of a thought (which is the causer of the "problem" emotion), but we are doing it in an impossible way.
Instead, like any fear, we must simply experience the emotion as is (since we can't stop it anyway), as it will disappear in no more than 1 1/2 minutes, per science, unless you restart it. When we see that the "emotion" is not a big threat and is only a bit of discomfort, a mere chemical reaction resulting in a physical sensation, then we simply note what is occurring ("what is happening"), say "so what", let it pass, and we move on, asking "what's next?" and then doing it. See What Happened.
If one is suppressing an emotion, there is a battle going on, where extra energy is expended against something that happens anyway and will disappear if unopposed. This leads to the "transformation" lingo expression: "what you resist, persists" and "what you duplicate, disappears". The latter refers to acknowledging what is so, even labeling it, so that it become "disambiguated" as the scientists say.
Bad emotions and fears thrive in lack of clarity, in ambiguity, in lack of details...but when we clear them up, the ill effects disappear (or are minimized at least).
In Buddhist meditation, they practice seeing that a thought has occurred and simply give it a label "thought" and when an emotion occurs they will give it a label "emotion" or be more explicit ("anger", "despair", etc.). Labeling engages the higher brain and doesn't let the lower brain continue in a confused haze of drivel.
It scientifically increases activity in the right verntrolateral prefrontal cortex, tamping down activity in the amygdala.
Writing in a journal, describing your feelings specifically helps sort out your feelings and in so clarifying the brain disambiguates, which disengages the amygdala in it generalities and non-specific thinking.
Steven Hayes has been free of his panic attacks now for decades and has since devised "acceptanc and commitment therapy" (ACT), which has shown incredibly great results, more than cognitive therapy.
Being aware of the harmlessness of the monkey mind's chatter is a key, so that you can disengage (a doable behavior) from a distressing thought.
BELIEVING (INCREDIBLY) DISTORTED THINKING
The only grave threat is death (as death does involve a grave).
Everything else is just variations of very minor or false threats, which Richard Carlson addresses in his book Don't Sweat The Small Stuff - And It's All Small Stuff!
We take something that is deminimus (truly small) and we deal with it as if it were at the same level of threat as something big, aka we grossly exaggerate, living in total bullshit and being unhappy about it - but we put it there and then jumped into it.
For instance, one person had a little bit of a falling out with another person of very, very little contact. On an objective basis the rating of such a thing in terms of actual "loss" might be 0.5 on a scale of 1 to a 100. But with added thinking about how that would mean she would not having any friends (a distortion for sure) and then how lonely she would be and then how that would make her an unworthy person, etc. and etc., she magnified it into what she rated a 50 (1/2 of the magnitude of death). This distorted thinking ginned up fear upon fear upon fear - and of course resulted in emotional trauma - high emotional reaction is ALWAYS from believing there is a big threat, though most of what we are reacting to is no real threat at all!
Besides the illogic of the conclusion that there is a threat, the main multiplier is usually the added "it's so awful" or "I just couldn't handle it". (But we always handle it and we always survive, except once.)
You can spot distorted thinking by noting any time that you feel bad and then noting what you thought right before you got that feeling. There is no actual reason to feel bad, if one keeps his perspective on life. That is a hard "truth" to swallow and one you probably doubt, but it is true. Read the major summary How You And Your Brain/Body Operate And How You Can Create Happiness Or Not - The Overview (20 pages including a commitment page). And once you are certain of this, then you have the solution to the way out: Write down the distorted thought and then re-examine the belief, rewriting it to what is true. That is simple, though often it is good to get some help when you are stuck in the untruth and also to get a better higher perspective. (See Changing Beliefs.)
ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF MODERN LIFE
In America and in most of the world, what William James wrote is so true: "...in civilized life...it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear."
Genuine fear lies in the physical domain of reality - loss of limb, sense function, or life, all of which can be overcome in terms of much consequence, except for the latter (after which will no longer be a problem). All the other fears are "mental constructs", as the Buddha calls them - all made up in the mind and not real.
What this proclamation of James leads to is that there is almost nothing to fear and if the false fear occurs it is because we caused it - which would imply that we could also "uncause" it, by the same means that we caused it with a good dose of rational thinking.
We have more stimuli by a factor of 1,000's than did the caveman or even men of a few centuries ago. There is a lot more potential for misinterpreting something and/or causing in another way a false or unnecessary reaction. And we fail to unravel all of that false thinking and the harmful reactions. One of the purposes of this website is to encourage and help people to live based on "truth" and what works in life rather than primitive or stupid thinking and beliefs.
And we've lost alot of our community and support, naturally being more prone to uncertainty.
Yes, it takes some work to correct the misbeliefs and bad habits we have. But one thing that causes us not to do "the work" is that we seek to have our bad feelings erased by a magic pill, a miracle, or by avoidance - a preposterously absurd thing to believe, making no sense in reality.
Instead of doing what works, we escape the higher result activities in favor of short term gratification, mostly in the form of seeking relief (in the form of numbing, distraction, and/or pleasure seeking of lower quality).
The solution to modern life lies in being grateful for it, seeing there are no real threats, handling all that creates the problem by changing the beliefs and by mastering our thoughts and behaviors. That is the way to a happy life, not hope and punt.
LIVING IN THE FUTURE
We, as humans, have the remarkable capacity to plan and predict the future. We are driven to handle future threats by our anxiety. But we deal with the future in a totally dysfunctional way if we are experiencing more than a blip of anxiety.
Concern for an outcome or a potential threat makes sense. But then we must address the concern directly and also be able to accept that not all things will turn out as we wish - but, again, we must have the conviction that life will still be ok even if those things happen AND that it makes no sense to continue our "just in case" thinking. In other words, it is like the commonly heard affirmation: Do what you can and then let it be.
But we tend to do neither.
We keep "anxieties" going, spending the effort on that. But we need to spend the effort directly right away on doing what we can to address the concern and do all we can to handle it and not doddle in useless anxiety. The signal of concern is all we need - we don't need to keep repeating the signal over and over and generate the concern over and over, using up the mind's energies and generating bad feelings (pretty much just reigniting fears over and over).
The second item seems to lie forever out of most people's reach, as we fail to complete the loop of understanding and acceptance that is needed. The facts are that we cannot control the future and there will be undesired outcomes - BUT, and this is the key item, we can be relaxed about the future IF we understand that we'll be ok no matter what happens - life will be good.
If you "get" this, then you'll be freeing up huge amounts of energy formerly wasted on useless activity in the brain, plus you'll operate better in life without the impediment that anxiety is to the brain's functioning.
ESCAPING FROM WHAT WE FEAR
Escaping from what we fear is identified by Taylor Clark in his book Nerve as "the single most important error we commit in dealing with fear, a blunder so egregious..."
If we fear something so much that we think "we can't stand it", we are simply expressing a belief, not a truth. Of couse, you can "stand it". A little bit of mental pain does not destroy anyone. And if you face the fear as just a belief and you look into its validity, you can diminish and/or evaporate the fear, instead of experiencing it over and over. It is, ironically, less painful in total to look a fear than it is to not look at it and continue to experience the pain over and over and over and over and over...
The primary reason not to rescue ourselves or others (in a form of "co-dependency" and enabliing) is that we rob ourselves and the others of the experience and the realization that "nothing happened", so the fear is false.
DON'T CONFUSE THE TWO SETS OF EFFECTS
There is a vital distinction here: that we separate the effect of having the fear from the anticipated "bad thing" that was feared. In other words, the fear was expressed in the body somehow and had some effect - but the effect was caused only by the fear. The actual thing "out there" that was "bad" (feared) had a separate effect - such as the person might have had to spend time fixing the problem that occurred (i.e. loss of time and effort). So there are two sets of effects: 1. Effects from creating the fear and 2. the effects of the actual circumstance.
An example is the person who observes herself feeling bad because she thought someone rejected her. She believed that meant something, though there are people who don't believe that - of course, that means that the belief is not true, as two opposites can't be true. Other than the effects of incurring the fear, she was encouraged to notice what was true before the incident and what was true afterward: that she was still intact and undamaged by the actual incident. At that point, she is supposed to realize and then say to herself, "oh, nothing happened, I only just made something up." And then she can begin to not associate rejection with any real threat. (See also Rejection, which is one of the big illusions.)
Again, from Clark's book (buy the book to gain much more clarity):
"Without exposing ourselves to the things that trigger our fears, we never get a chance to learn that we can cope, or that our catastrophic worries are wrong, or that the thing we fret about really aren't going to tear us limb from limb. Avoidance ensures that the fear lives on.
This link between evasion and fear preservation is so strong that psychologists consider chronic avoidance to be the central feature of an anxiety disorder, a state of anxiety persistent and intense enough to [significantly] interfere with a person's life."
If a person can discipline him/herself to go through several visualizations, also writing them down, the person can "observe" the fear that is experienced (but in a controllable way, since it is your visualization) and then have it end by saying "see nothing happened", then the fear/anxiety will be largely extinguished. Of course, you have to observe that you've felt the fear before and that nothing happened - which also means that you might, if you can remember, go back to past incidences and observe objectively as a distant witness what actually occurred.
Extinction of fear happens when we get repeated exposure to what we are afraid of, so that the brain learns not to be afraid. (Of course, we have to be addressing an irrational fear, not the fear of jumping out of a plane without a parachute.)
A few recent studies suggest that mindfulness meditation impacts the structure and function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, with a large decrease in fear responses. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex "learns" and is strengthened to effectively screen out or cut off the amygdala's response.
"Moving through fear is the only way out of it." Evelyn Behar, a University Of Illinois psychologist.
[And "moving through fear" is actually the easier way - alot easier than letting it remain and keep you upset over time, often over and over and over - but we need not do that, especially if we realize that most of "fear" is based on falsehoods that can be corrected and/or must be dealt with quickly (so that the cause is "handled"). ]