Numerous members of the Dragontree community have told us they’re dealing with a lot of anxiety these days, and it happens to be something I’m very familiar with. I think my half-Jewish DNA blessed me with a substantial dose of fear and paranoia. Although there have been plenty of times I wished I weren’t wired this way, I’ve worked through it enough to recognize that many good things have come out of it – including that it has allowed me to help many others with anxiety.
I’ve found that there’s no single approach that works for everyone, so I like to give people a few things to try together, and I’ll share some of these today. A good place to start is with an understanding of how our survival mechanisms work – and malfunction.
Most of us had our first taste of intense fear in childhood and it made a strong impression on us. The feeling itself is often as memorable as whatever it was trying to warn us about. After a few incidents in which a strong feeling of fear accompanied a situation in which we had a strong desire to avoid an unpleasant outcome – e.g., getting hurt or losing something or someone, perhaps our own life – we began to trust fear.
“Why would I be feeling this way,” the mind rationalizes, “if there weren’t something bad about to happen?” Fear is the emotional mechanism our survival instinct uses to get our attention and to cause us to prioritize security above all else. It makes sense that fear feels bad, that it jars us, that it causes us to react without thinking – and that, since it arises when big things seem to be at stake, it’s trustworthy. It’s not.
Our trust in fear began at an age when we didn’t know how to discern whether or not it was legitimate. It turns out much of the time that fear is aroused by our survival mechanisms, it’s misinformed and exaggerated. Just think of all the times you’ve gotten scared about something that turned out to be nothing. We even feel fear while sitting safely on our couch, reading or watching a story in which a fictional character is threatened.
For most people with anxiety, fear is an error nearly 100% of the time. We just got into the bad habit of letting it take over whenever it arises. Breaking a habit takes work, but anyone can do it. When it comes to anxiety this means, as often as possible, doing something different than usual when you feel fearful.
1) Slow down and deepen your breathing. The mind follows the breath, so slower, deeper breathing – especially with a long exhale – will slow down your mind and open up space in your consciousness so you can notice and question this feeling without being at its mercy. Let your inhale go all the way down to fill up your pelvic bowl, and let the edgy feeling pour out of you on the exhale.
2) Turn toward it with curiosity and bravery. Fear goes hand-in-hand with the fight-flight-freeze reaction. That is, we tend to fight it (resist it, hate it, throw everything at it, spend all our savings on toilet paper, etc.), run away from it (any of various avoidance mechanisms, including getting on our devices or moving to a bunker), or freeze (become physically and/or mentally immobilized). These are all animalistic reactions; we can be smarter and braver. Instead of letting the feeling run you, get interested in it. It’s just a feeling. Examine it. What is this thing? What triggered it? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like?
3) Don’t resist it. While meeting the feeling with bravery and curiosity, can you soften yourself in relation to it? What if you just let the feeling be here without fighting it? What if you even invite it to stay? What if you allow yourself to feel it with total willingness? Resistance makes fear stronger. You’ve probably heard “What you resist persists,” but maybe you haven’t heard the corollary: “A feeling fully felt finally fades.” The moment you say, “Bring it on,” it changes.
4) Turn the relationship around. When you have one or more intensely anxious experiences it’s easy to develop an aversion to fear. You may find yourself experiencing it as a monster that’s chasing you, which you need to destroy or run away from. But as soon as you run, you define the relationship. You make fear bad. You make yourself a victim. You relinquish your power.
When you start chasing it instead, it stops controlling you. Tell it, “I will find you. I will learn all of your appearances, all of your hiding places,” and you’ll stop fearing fear.
I know these are uncertain times. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. But I promise you, whatever happens, certain things will still be here. Love will still be here. Grace will still be here. Kindness will still be here. Peace will still be here.
I hope these different ways of relating to anxiety are helpful for you. Next time we’ll look at broader self-care strategies for “down-regulating” your nervous system.
I’m honored to help however I can,
Dr. Peter Borten
If you need extra support, I’ve crafted our Anxiety-Relief tincture to do just that.