Fears, Anxiety, and Phobias
What is anxiety? Where does it come from? When you have first hand experience of it, you might also ask, why is this happening? Is there a genetic component? Is it physiological or chemical? Is it a reaction to some hidden or apparent trauma from the past? Is it purely psychological? Is it an existential or spiritual rumbling, reaction, crisis?
Paraphrasing the words of the renowned Tibetan Lama, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, “ . . . it doesn’t matter if something is true or not, what matters is whether it’s beneficial (for you and others) to believe it or not, or whether it works (meaning it heals you) or not.” A good question to ask yourself is, “which reason is true?” And you might find that your anxiety, fear, panic, phobia has components of all of the above. I suggest then, that it’s most beneficial to approach your fear from all angles or from the angle that works best for you.
It’s important to begin the healing process asking these questions with our conscious mind or intellect so we begin the process of investigation and movement toward greater understanding and fearlessness. I believe that everything we think (say and do) on the intellectual, conscious, or surface level sends a message to our deeper, subconscious, or subtle mind. And in turn those deeper levels inform our conscious behavior as well. It’s a loop and anywhere in the cycle we can add positive reinforcement. In the process of hypnosis, we strategically change those messages to accomplish our wish to be healthier, happier, more connected, more loving and compassionate. Are the messages true? If I send a message, “calm and relaxed” – is it true? Maybe we aren’t experiencing that state of mind right at the moment, but does it work? Is it beneficial? Absolutely! Are we lying to ourselves? Are we lying to ourselves when we send a message, “you are a failure, you are worthless; there are threatening people and situations everywhere and no one can be trusted”? Which message is true?
The word anxiety comes from the Latin word, anxietatem, which means anguish, angst, solicitude. Others define it as a state of distress or uneasiness, apprehension, psychic tension, fear of danger, foreboding, worry, disquiet, and even more interesting, an earnest but tense desire; an eagerness. From a purely scientific point of view it’s believed that when we experience excessive stress (anxiety)—whether from internal worry or external circumstance—a bodily reaction is triggered, called the “fight or flight” response. This response corresponds to an area of our brain called the hypothalamus, which—when stimulated—initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release that prepares our body for running or fighting. Interestingly enough, when we experience excitement, the body responds in much the same way. It’s just that we interpret it the feelings or sensations differently and so experience the event as pleasant rather than as fearful and unpleasant.
The important thing to remember, no matter how we understand anxiety, is that it can change. If it can come and go, this means it can go . . . forever, with practice and understanding. The mind has the power to effect change on a physical level. The mind can change the body/brain!
Anxiety in all its forms is painful. Some highly sensitive people experience it as utterly agonizing, even in its relatively subtle forms. Having come from a family vulnerable to anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias and earlier in my own life, suffering from these myself, I truly understand how uncomfortable, painful, and stressful these very difficult emotions can be. They can rob us of our joy, our work, the goodness of our relationships, and they can constrict and diminish our very life.
Still, I feel that those of us who experience these states are on to something. We have discovered a tip of a certain iceberg that once addressed (even lightly) can remove a huge resistance giving rise to a much fuller, richer, braver, more productive, more interesting and lived life. The other more positive way to reframe anxiety and all its forms is to think, “I am experiencing this, it is happening. What am I going to do with it? What are my choices? I can either run from it, try to escape from it, resist it, get very busy, take drugs, drink and eat too much, hide away, and never really reach safe ground or . . . I can acknowledge the tip of the iceberg, give it some compassionate attention and understanding and then begin the melting process.” The melting process, by the way, takes care of itself once we set it in motion. We don’t ask the sun to melt the snow and ice, it just does it because that’s what it does. As we bring understanding and a loving acceptance to our experience of fear, it just has to go as it no longer has the power it had when we were resisting it.
I no longer pathologize fear in the forms it takes in people who are not psychotic (I’ll leave that discussion to other healthcare practitioners). Rather I see it as a kind of messenger indicating that something needs to be investigated on a deep level. Does something need to change? Are we angry about something and do we feel we shouldn’t be? Did something happen in the past that at the time we experienced as very frightening and yet if we look again with our adult, wise mind, we’d see was really misunderstood or misinterpreted? Or perhaps there was some known trauma and if we look deeply at it now, we can begin to understand we do not need to be afraid of it any longer. And is there some physiological imbalance that’s related? Is this imbalance causing the painful thoughts and experiences? Or is the content of our life and our reaction to it causing the physiological imbalance? It’s useful to ask these questions, letting go of needing an answer. The subconscious mind will always give us what we need to know, so we can relax in asking these questions, knowing the answers will come eventually.
Now this isn’t to say I do not encourage reducing, and eventually eliminating anxiety in all its forms. I take my job seriously. But the first step is to clearly identify it by listening to what it has to say or looking it straight in the eye. The big scary monster often turns out to be . . . not that big of a deal. In The Wizard of Oz, the terrifying Oz turns out to be a little, insecure man behind a curtain. As with many of the other issues I work with, I believe we first need to know our opponent before we are able to defeat him/her/it, and understand it as not an enemy at all. We need to touch it, understand it, appreciate it for what it is helping us learn, see that it has no real power over us and then let it go. I don’t believe we can let it go unless we first have a very close look.
We are whole beings and it’s useful to walk all the paths that lead into (and out of) our anxiety. Why not address it on all levels? With this in mind I take a two-lane path approach using hypnosis to recognize, reduce and eliminate anxiety. By “two” I mean from the side of the body and from the side of the mind. Approaching from both sides effectively changes the brain’s neural pathways. Think of them like highways that have been created simply through habit. Every time you change a habit, even a little bit, the neural pathways begin to change. So you are actually changing paths, you are moving in a different direction.
Session Options for Anxiety, Phobias, and Fear
As always I will tailor your sessions to your particular needs. Because anxiety can take some time to practice away, I encourage you to give yourself 6 to 10 sessions to fully understand the tools you will be using and to train with someone who can guide you through the process.
Please do contact me if you would like to create a package where you pay one fee (at a substantial discount) for the entire program.
Feel free to read through and begin practicing the different exercises I may teach you and use in our sessions:
Using the Body to Release Anxiety
We can approach feelings of anxiety by addressing it on a physical level. In this way, we teach the body to influence our thinking. The following exercises detail only some of the suggestions I’d give in a typical session.
Labeling to Notice When You are Anxious
When you first notice you are experiencing fear on any level, begin labeling the physical sensations using non-emotional terms:
a heaviness in my chest
heart beating faster
throbbing sensation in my belly
heat or cold sensations
tightness in my shoulders
butterflies in my stomach
The point of this exercise: focusing on physical sensations can often take your attention away from the fearful thoughts that always seem to accompany these experiences: Oh no, what if this happens? I really am dying of that disease! What if so and so dies? Will I be a homeless person? And so on. (See below for more on this).
It’s also important to remember that the physical sensations listed above could also mean you are excited about something. So you are teaching your subconscious mind: “I’m just experiencing this,” without making it into some conceptual “story” that will only escalate the fear.
Dial Down the Fear
Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when he said, “ . . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Very often it’s the fear reaction and all its accompanying very unpleasant feelings we are most afraid of.
Imagine a dial (on an oven, sound system, timer) that goes up to 10. 10 is your most stressed, anxious, afraid. Without thinking too much, rate your level of fear 1-10. Set the dial to that number and breath in very slowly and as you slowly exhale let the dial go down a number, consciously make the next inhalation even slower and as you slowly exhale, let the dial go down another number, keep going until you can bring the dial down to a number below 5. Remember: this is a subjective scale. Whatever is 5 for you, that is 5.
The point of this exercise: teaching your subconscious that you are able to experience a lot of anxiety (and you won’t die), and it will diminish. Once you get used to the idea that it comes and goes it will go more readily because you aren’t afraid of being afraid anymore.
Staying With the Experience of Fear
Stay with the experience you are having – you might combine this with the dial method above but hang out at your 8, 9 or 10 for a few moments. Willingly hang out there. Ask yourself, “Can I do this?” and just breath. Tell yourself, “If I do this, I will make huge progress toward letting go of my anxiety forever.” And just breathe. Do it for a few seconds, giving it a gentle attention. You might also visualize or understand all the millions of other people in the world experiencing this so you feel we’re all in this together and that this is an opportunity for you to grow stronger and create a much more meaningful and full life for yourself.
The point of this exercise: The more you look at the “monster”, the more you realize it is nothing to be afraid of and indeed you will see that it all comes down to an unpleasant feeling. The more we try to resist and escape from that feeling, the more intense and scary it becomes. This exercise is a bit like simply turning to face the one who is chasing you and finding out he/she/it is much smaller than you’d thought.
Using Our Mind to Work With Anxiety
Starting with the mind we use language to create bodily sensations and thus, changing the way we feel both mentally and physically. Repeat words like these again and again and make up your own:
Calm and cool
Loose and light
Centered and steady
Relaxed and released
Normal and natural
Don’t worry that your conscious mind doesn’t really believe them. Think that you are talking soothingly to a child you love, trying to calm him or her (that’s what you’re actually doing).
The point of this exercise: You are doing nothing less than reprogramming your neural pathways. Think about the feeling the words, soft and relaxed, create in you. You feel soft and relaxed (even if for a few seconds).
Reasoning and Attention
It is true that we are what we pay attention to. To divert your thought patterns from the fear escalating phrases “what if?” and “oh no!” say these soothing words to yourself (remember you are sending messages to your subconscious mind and reprogramming your brain’s neural pathways). These phrases can effectively turn off the others like a faucet.
- This is purely physical.
- My brain/body is revved up, reacting to some old trigger, an old fight or flight response.
- This has nothing to do with what is actually happening in my life.
- There is no real threat here, and if there was something I need to do to authentically protect myself, I will know and do it immediately. (Like if you need to get out of the way of an oncoming car, you just act swiftly without thinking, “what should I do?” or “what if this car hits me, then what?”
- I am right here and nothing is really happening.
- I am alive and breathing deeply.
- I am living through this.
- The more I stay with this and not try to escape, the more I head for fearlessness.
- I head for fearlessness! (Try also, “I am fearless” – your subconscious might just believe it)
- I am stronger than this feeling.
- I welcome this opportunity to let go of my fear forever.
- This feeling is like a child who is afraid of the dark, so I can feel love and compassion for him/her right now.
- These are sensations. These are only feelings.
- What would you, fear, like to say to me?
- What message do you, fear, want to deliver?
The point of this exercise: same as “Word Play”.
Place of Refuge from Fear
Create and describe an inner landscape, a place you’ve been or can imagine anew right now. Use all of your senses to create it: what does it look like down to every minute detail? What does it smell like (fresh ocean air)? What does it taste like? Who is there with you? What does it feel like to touch the warm, velvety sand? What can you hear? The more detail you use, the easier it will be to get it deeply into your mind. Once that happens you can go there again and again and it will easily create a feeling of peace and well-being.
The point of this exercise: What do you believe in more, the mental world you create with your thoughts or the physical world your senses perceive in front of you right now? I would bet it’s the former. Therefore, here we are recreating a mental world (using our senses and imagination) and that new mental world creates positive feeling. Try this: Imagine you are sucking on a juicy lemon. Focus on its texture, its taste. Are you salivating?
Something about Writing
Here is a handy writing worksheet that will help increase awareness about your fear. Make copies and use it when you are calm and relaxed and also when you are afraid.
Identify and track anxiety signals/bodily cues. I know I am anxious when I feel these physical sensations:
My external stressors or cues are usually:
My internal scripts, thoughts/cognitions and negative consequences/fear
(for example: I am afraid if I don’t . . . .)
The ways I cope that feel unhealthy or escalate my fear:
The ways I cope that feel good and seem to work:
Let the Fear Write
What do I think or feel right now? (for example: I lost my job, so I will wind up on the street):
1. I feel . . .
2. I want . . .
3. I need . . .
4. I think . . .
Good Enough Concept – What is more likely to happen or at least has a 50% chance of happening? (For example, I will most likely find another job or seek out new resources. Who knows I may even be better off!)
List more realistic and adaptive expectations: