Freud said anxiety is the most frequent psychological symptom, and it’s true: not only are there disorders where anxiety is the main symptom, but virtually all other mental health syndromes include anxiety somehow. Only psychopaths, we’re told, don’t experience normal fears.
Cognitive therapy for depression, a widely used approach, is based on the notion that depressive symptoms—sadness, loss of enjoyment, fatigue—are actually products of fear. That is, the person has allowed anxieties and doubts to take over, and to become the only “truths.” S/he starts to believe the fears are the total story, whereas they really represent just one, pessimistic, scared point of view.
How to manage fears? Two choices: You can confront them, or avoid them. Over and over, people avoid stuff that frightens them, thinking they will not have the courage or know how to cope. They imagine the fear will flood and overwhelm them, they will not be able to think straight, their strength will be sapped. They expect to lose the showdown, so they avoid it.
But procrastinating this way gives fear more power. After all, you’ve always run away when it showed up: you decide to go back to your safe zone, you aren’t ready to face that! You postpone in the safe zone, knowing you’ve probably given power to an overdramatized boogieman or an old, outworn, automatically-playing mental fear tape. Seeing yourself procrastinate on facing the fears further lowers self-esteem.
It’s true that in working with traumatic memories, it is essential to keep from getting overwhelmed; ideally, client and therapist address a small hunk of scary stuff at a time, put away the material, then reestablish security until the next meeting. While working on that piece of fear, the client is helped to confront its truths straightforwardly, realizing that they can’t kill you. This turns that fear into a melting ice cube.
When you tear off the Band-aid, when you look at your fear straight in the eye and take charge of the facts of the matter, that fear will lose power. Master therapist Carl Rogers said, “The facts are our friends.”
Confronting your fear may bring on grief for however long you let it control you, but that’s healthy sadness, and you’ll also feel relief and liberation: you’ve dropped a deadening piece of luggage for good and for all.
Treatment for panic attacks, the most intense type of anxiety, involves the client shifting in outlook from cowering and fearing fear, to accepting and managing the symptoms. Where before he ran from panic, and avoided places where it might surface, in therapy he’s asked to be OK with the truth that panic is there and might be for a while: the idea is take it on, ride it out, and each time it shows up, practice your skills at managing it. Don’t panic over panicking; walk toward the lion’s roar with a curious, neutral, learner’s attitude. (Credit to Dr Reid Wilson, expert and author of Don’t Panic: Take Control of Panic Attacks!)
Whether your fear is major or minor, take a head-on, accepting attitude toward it; decide to be the boss and not to carry this anxiety around anymore. At some point, you believed it constituted major danger, but running away from it has not helped. As they say at LuluLemon, do something every day that scares you. Walk toward the lion’s roar, and find out: it was an overhyped insecurity, or a need for soothing and reassurance, or a situation that needed realistic problem solving. It wants to come home and be your pet.