Living in a culture that prescribes the quick fix for any discomfort isn’t likely to find “facing and accepting” fear very appealing. Most would rather not look straight into those things they are most afraid of. It would be much easier and more pleasant to do positive affirmations or generate a gratitude list than to have to look fear straight in the face. The irony here is that while positive psychology and feel-good techniques can be useful and have risen to the top of the pop psych chart, facing difficult emotions head-on is the best path toward liberation. While self-help techniques can work well for milder forms of emotional distress, recurring fear may need a different approach. According to Miriam Greenspan, author of “Healing Through the Dark Emotions:”
“There are times when ‘staying positive’ hits a wall, and adversity (the Latin root of which means to heed or pay attention to) calls us to attend to realities we’d prefer to avoid, ignore or deny. These shadow emotions grow rather than diminish with these attempts at suppression.” If ignored or denied, sooner or later fear will return to the forefront and have its way with us.
During this time of year, as students prepare for a new semester or a new school and people gear up for the changing season and increased work demands, fear and anxiety seem to spread like the germs spread by schoolchildren. Being fearful can become overwhelming during times of change, sometimes producing severe negative effects and symptoms. It is not unusual for students who are moving on to middle school, high school or college to experience an attack of anxiety as they face new uncertainties. These episodes can be very frightening, leading one to think they have a serious problem or are totally losing control. Yet, usually in a short amount of time when these fears are exposed, addressed and considered thoughtfully they tend to shrink and often vanish. Fear uses isolation and silence as a breeding ground. Like germs, negative emotions can fester and multiply in the dark. Shining a light and exposing them however will usually result in dispersal.
According to Greenspan, “As a culture, we see the dark emotions as symptoms of impairment and pathology, rather than as the darker colors of our rich emotional palette. We call them ‘negative.’ But it’s not really the emotions that are negative, it’s our attitude toward them.”
If disregarded, repeated episodes of fear can lead a person to avoid situations and activities that may be important. When fear interferes to such an extent, it reduces one’s life, and erodes self-confidence. This debilitating kind of fear can be overcome and managed if we better understand it and apply proven methods and techniques for controlling it.
Some methods include:
• The first step in facing and letting go of fear is to first acknowledge it and if possible not judging yourself for it. It may be best at first to simply observe it, not trying to change it but rather undertaking a small study of it-just notice how it works.
• A second step would be to consider and affirm that this fear is not trying to harm you but rather may be bringing you something to pay attention to and even learn from. (For example were you not supposed to be “scared” and was fear frowned upon in the family you grew up in? Were you silenced or shamed? Or perhaps your abilities to achieve and succeed were not encouraged by someone important to you?)
• Step three would involve beginning to tolerate the feeling of fear rather than to try to squash it or panic when the feeling arises. Instead consider the effects that it is having on you. What are its intentions for you? Is it holding you back from your own intentions for yourself?
• A fourth step would be to notice if there are times when you are able to not let the fear stop you from doing something you really want to do. Consider how you were able to do this in spite of fear?
• Step five would be to imagine what you would do and accomplish if fear were no longer able to have its way with you. What directions would you take if fear were no longer holding you back?
• Step six would be a time to take action, with or without fear. And perhaps the first of these could be to pray one of three basic prayers. Essentially they are: help me, thank you and I surrender. You don’t have to believe in a religion to ask for help from a resource or power outside yourself or to express gratitude for what you have in your life. This is a proven way to gain strength.
“Courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.”
Editor’s Note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation and therapeutic services at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington.