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    Overcoming the Fear of Anxiety

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    Ron is well-paid and valued at his job, but despite good performance reviews and repeated assurances that his position is secure, he constantly worries that any minute he’ll be fired and wind up on the street. Mike has been in a strong, committed relationship for years, but worries almost daily that his partner is about to lose interest and leave him. Both of these guys know they’re poisoning today’s happiness by dwelling on what might happen tomorrow, but neither of them knows how to stop worrying.

    I’ve found that a two-step process derived from a form of therapy called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can be highly effective in helping us manage anxiety. The steps are easy to understand, but require sustained and consistent practice.

    The steps are 1) to remember that the problem in anxiety is the worrying, not what we’re worried about; and 2) to befriend anxiety rather than treating it as an enemy.

    The first step is crucial but difficult, because worry tends to be hypnotic and self-sustaining. When we become preoccupied with what might happen tomorrow, we overlook the fact that things are okay today, and our nervous systems react as if we’re really in an emergency now. Since we can’t do anything about an emergency that doesn’t exist in the first place, we feel weak and helpless, which causes us to worry even more. We begin to break this vicious cycle when we can sustain awareness that the problem is what the mind is doing today, not what might happen tomorrow.

    In practice this means shifting our attention away from the content of our fears and focusing instead on the feelings and sensations of fear. Instead of endlessly assessing whether the evidence really suggests that we’re about to be fired, or lose our partner, etc. we get out of the story our anxiety is telling us and turn the attention to the feelings and sensations of the anxiety itself—the sense of dread, the racing heart, the shallow breathing, the clenched jaw, etc. Every time the mind gets lost in the story again, we re-focus on the feelings and sensations of anxiety. This mindful focus returns us to the present moment, and helps us to realize vividly that the real source of our pain is in the present, and not in some hypothetical future.

    The second step is counter-intuitive, but powerful and effective. We stop treating anxiety as the enemy. The capacity for anxiety evolved over millions of years and is built into the nervous system. We can’t prevent ourselves from experiencing some anxiety, and we also can’t get complete control over it. When we do try to control it we usually just wind up getting into a fight with ourselves, and the result is that we just make it worse. The suggestion here is to give up trying to make it go away and to instead give it our full and compassionate attention. In a sense, we start to make friends with it.

    When we give it our full attention, we notice that every experience of anxiety has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a wave of energy that arises, peaks, and subsides. When we neither feed it by getting lost in the story, nor try to resist it, it eventually fades on its own. We also begin to see that anxiety, while unpleasant, is not itself an emergency. We learn to see it as an ordinary mental event.

    I don’t want to imply that learning to be mindful and non-reactive to anxiety is easy to do. It’s a practice that requires patience and consistency. Sometimes the best we can do is to nibble around the edges of it with our awareness for a few moments. Sometimes, with intense anxiety, vigorous aerobic exercise or yoga can help to discharge enough of the energy to make mindfulness possible. But with practice, mindfulness strengthens like a muscle, and it becomes possible to be fully present even to extreme anxiety.

    When we befriend anxiety instead of trying to conquer it or talk ourselves out of it, we learn to measure our progress, not by how seldom we experience anxiety, but by how much we accept it. We think in terms of reducing the believability of our fears rather than the frequency of their occurrence. We begin to overcome the fear of fear, which is really the root issue.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website