Please note: This post is talking about illusory fear, where you are afraid of things that do not exist or cannot hurt you where you are. If, however, you are afraid of a real threat, get the hell out of Dodge immediately.
We learn fear from experience, and some of these experiences are traumatizing. Sometimes, we hold over that echo of fear long past its usefulness, long past its validity.
Fear is useful when it protects us, warns us of danger, makes us cautious and wary so that we do not go blind and get hurt. Fear is valid when there is something present, both in your surroundings and in the current moment, to be afraid of.
Fear can be crippling when it outlives its causes. The same tactics that once ensured our survival can paralyze us or send us spiraling into paranoia. We may feel terror when we are in the safest place, with our most trusted people, simply because, once upon a time, some aspect of this situation may have signaled danger – such as hearing loud sounds outside your home.
Being accusatory and angry towards yourself only heightens your fear. Shouting “why am I afraid of this?! this is stupid!” in your own head solves nothing and only increases the tension in your body. Attacking yourself when you’re afraid only verifies the sense that there is something to fear.
Gentleness, then, is the best approach to fearfulness. Just as you would approach a panicked animal: move slowly and never suddenly, keep yourself non-threatening and low, and stop if the fear spikes. Use a soft voice; do not brandish weapons or fists or your frustration with yourself. Be as patient and compassionate as you can, and forgive yourself if you cannot.
Remember that hostility to your fear only worsens it, but staying calm in response to sudden fear will often drain it of its power and allow you to coax it away.
You’re okay. As you are, right now, in the middle of losing your shit, you are okay.
Let the intensity out. Sob until you stop shaking so much. Punch the living hell out of an inanimate object that won’t break your hand. Scream and shout. Say all the words in your head. Spit them, snarl them, wail them. Get them out of your head.
Good. Now. Slow your breathing. Just a little bit.
Stop clenching your muscles. Just a little bit.
Feel the anger or grief or fear or whatever you’re feeling. Find where it’s centered – your stomach, your fists, your throat, your heart. Let it go. If you can’t, then loosen your grasp. Just a little bit.
Listen to the thoughts in your head. Find the ones that are talking to you, the ones that tell you that you’re weak or stupid, the ones that demand that you get your shit together and stop melting down. Tell yourself, instead, that you are okay. You’re not over-reacting. You’re not weak. You’re not psychotic. You’re okay. That’s the only thing you need to tell yourself right now – you’re okay.
Take a deeper breath. Relax your muscles a little more. Let go of this powerful emotion you’re feeling.
Turn your attention to the space around you. If you don’t have much physical space, make mental space. Focus on the air next to your skin, then slowly expand outwards. Feel all the space in the room. It’s open. It’s safe. It’s yours. Close your eyes and make the space as big as you want it to be.
If there is something outside of your body that keeps bringing you back to your pain, like a phone or a picture or a locked door, imagine removing it from your space. Wrap it up, zap it out, cut all lines that link it to you.
Focus on your space. Breathe a little more slowly. Relax. Let go.
When you feel calm, or calmer, then turn your mind. Think of one single, simple, happy thing. Simplicity is important: don’t think of something complicated enough to have pros and cons. We only want pros right now. Just one, single, simple thing that brings you nothing but joy.
Keep breathing. If you start thinking of your pain again, gently refocus on your joy. Don’t yell at yourself for drifting; don’t feel guilty; don’t tense up. Just breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Remind yourself that you’re okay. And keep breathing.
If something hurts, our instinct is to withdraw from it. Put your hand on a hot stove, you snatch it back as soon as that flare of pain hits your brain. Have a terrible conversation with a coworker, you avoid them for a little bit until the hurt subsides and logic reasserts itself.
Sometimes, we can’t withdraw from the pain. Maybe a memory won’t let you think of anything else, haunts your dreams, keeps resurfacing in conversations. Maybe that old knee injury is aching all the time these days, more or less depending on how the weather is at the time.
Pain sucks. There’s really no arguing that. But pain can also be useful.
Sit with the pain.
Don’t wallow in it; don’t stay there forever. But sit with it for a while. Accustom yourself to feeling uncomfortable. See if there’s anything you can learn from the pain.
Explore the memory that won’t let go. Relive it if you must. Say outloud how you felt then, how you feel now. Let out that belatedly-thought-up witty riposte. Snarl your anger to an imaginary listener. Cry until the pulse of a dehydration headache is beginning to tap your temples. (Then, please, drink some water.)
We can’t move on until we’ve moved through. Life is a path, not a series of teleporters.
Let yourself feel, fully. Don’t deny yourself this step in the journey. Then, when you’ve expressed and explored all that you can, let it go. Give yourself permission to move on.
When you’re ready, shift your attention to something simple and happy in the present, and let the pain begin to subside.
What’s the #1 rule of preserving food and drink?
Additives! Wait, no.
Seal it up. Soda bottles, canned fruits, tubs of ice cream. Shrink-wrapped fresh or frozen meat, bagged vegetables, spice shakers. All in air-tight containers.
However useful this is for the food industry, it is not applicable to our emotions.
don’t bottle the bad
You’re angry. You think you shouldn’t be – or perhaps you know you should be, but can’t let yourself be. You shove it aside. You bottle it.
Because it’s sealed away, it will stay fresh and potent for far longer than if it were allowed to be aired out. You’ll be able to come back to it, again and again, and it is still as spicy and hot as the day you first felt it.
How much emotional indigestion do you need?
don’t bottle the good, either
You’re elated. You haven’t felt this wonderful in weeks. You try to capture that feeling, to preserve it, because you’re worried that you’ll lose it if you’re not careful.
What happens to plants when you put them in sealed containers on a shelf? The same thing that happens to your joy. Unable to feed on your breath and your light, your joy withers, a flower pressed between pages of a book.
A dried memory of happiness is only an echo of the living, breathing emotion in the present.
let it breathe
Air out your unhappiness in whatever way is comfortable and safe for you. Don’t lash out at people; don’t blame them. Find a place and time to breathe, to sit with your anger or grief or fear, let it roll up and out of you. Express it. Don’t keep it locked inside. Ask for help if you need it.
In the same way, air out your happiness. Joy and hope and creativity grow in open environments, preferably with interaction with fuel sources: inspiring people, conducive music, good attitudes. Grow your goodness like a vine and tend it well.
Don’t bottle it. Your emotions are not flavors of soda.