“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”—Mark Twain
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” –Leo Buscaglia
Fear runs in my family. Though all of us have happy lives, on any given night, someone is probably awake in the middle of the night worrying about money, the mortgage, the well-being of someone else, the looming presence of death and decay, and/or the fact that we’re not sleeping because of our worrying minds. As a kid, I was so afraid of the dentist that I hid letters from our dental office in the closet and hid any teeth I lost in the back yard. I dreamt of how I’d cling to the stairway banister if anyone tried to take me to the dentist, and I covered my chipped teeth with my hand so that no one would see.
Though I no longer tremble about the dentist, I still get anxiety. Thinking about upcoming transitions in this new year, I have been noticing my own mind running in circles—coming up with possibilities that will occur if I don’t figure out some master plan for my entire life right now. There is a part of me that feels this enormous responsibility for controlling my entire future, and another part of me that knows that I’m out of control and is terrified of that.
Though some people are more genetically prone to anxiety, a huge part of anxiety is learned. I hit the genetic and learned jackpot and I know many people who have a similar tendency for worry. Though we may know all there is to know about anxiety, it still comes. How do we relate to it when it is here?
1. Insight. Fear is a normal part of our experience. Our brains, especially if we’ve experienced trauma or early wounding, notice many things as threats, including anything unknown. If we grew up in an unpredictable household, we may have learned that we needed to constantly be on guard or to control situations. If we’re going through a difficult time, our brains go into fight or flight mode and try to protect us. When we see fear as our body’s protective response, and not as something ‘wrong’ with us, it is easier to accept and be gentle with our fear.
2. Compassion. Meet your fear with compassion and curiosity. Explore it, give it love. What are you really afraid of? Often, there is fear over the fact that we all die, decay, and don’t have ultimate control over our bodies. Sometimes it’s that we feel like we are flawed and wouldn’t be loved if people really knew us. Whatever the fear, there is a poor, scared person inside of you that needs your compassion. How do we give ourselves compassion? We may need to wake up from a limiting belief (like that we’re not lovable), or get a picture of how connected all of life is. Walt Whitman writes:
“The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Remind yourself of how connected life and death are by getting into nature, reading a poem, or honoring the memories of someone you’ve lost.
3. Gratitude. Invite in gratitude. When we’re operating from fear, we’re probably not noticing all the gifts of our lives. Right now, I’m thinking of making some personal transitions. When I get lost in fear about the transitions, I tend to forget all that I have. I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I have an amazing partner, family, and wonderful friends. I can afford running water, food, and rent. I have an education and leisure time. I get to be on this beautiful earth. I get to read, express my thoughts, type these words, look at the stars, go for hikes. The list could go on and on. I can spin out, or I can choose to live in the present, with what is, and trust in what’s to come
4. See the big picture. Another important step is to remember that everything works out as it should. Most of the things you were anxious about long ago never happened, and the ones that did have led you to exactly where you are. As long as we’re moving, we’re growing. Things are changing, we’re getting better, knowing ourselves better, discovering new love, and getting to know ourselves more by the day. Whenever there’s loss, there’s also an exciting window and an opportunity for change.
5. Don’t run from it. Fear is a part of our human experience, but we can choose whether to be ruled by it. We can hide, numb out, and give it power, or we can see it for what it is: a sensation that doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about reality. When fear loses its power, we are free to give ourselves tenderness compassion. We are free to engage fully with the magical and mysterious life that is here.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.