Have you ever stood in the ocean right where the waves break?
If so, you have been pushed around by a relentless force. Even if you withstand the first few waves breaking on you, at some point you will have to surrender to the power and repetition of the ocean. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, how determined you are, or even how strong you are. The ocean eventually wins.
There are two solutions to this situation, you can go back to shore or you can move out a little further from shore. Either way, you stop getting battered by the waves.
Anxiety can cause a similar situation inside of us. The waves of adrenaline, emotion, and worry crash against us. At this point many people run back to the shore, it makes sense to get away from this overwhelming barrage. Unfortunately, we become conditioned to run to the shore over and over again, or in many cases we avoid the ocean (situations that cause anxiety) altogether. Other people stand their ground and fight the waves of anxiety at the exact point where anxiety is strongest. These people appear to win for a while, but eventual they succumb physically or emotionally to the breaking waves of fear.
The answer for me, and it turns out for many others who have overcome constant fear and situational anxiety, is a completely different idea. We don’t run from the waves, and we don’t stand against the breakers. We push out past the breaking point, we allow the wave to lift us and set us back down as it wishes, until eventually we barely notice the power of the wave any more.
This is a difficult idea to understand for people who have panic attacks, generalized anxiety, constant worry, OCD and many other issues. The answer to defeating fear is to call its bluff.
You have to confront the fear, but not in a hostile way. You have to allow the fear to be there, accept what it does to you, and realize it can’t hurt you. Even though this is counter intuitive, it is effective in lessening the intensity and duration of anxiety events. And for many this eventually heals the anxiety completely.
In the past, I got so good at avoiding panic attacks because I feared the fear itself. I knew what would happen to me if I encountered a panic attack, so I designed a life of avoiding anything that may bring on an attack. Unfortunately, I avoided school, work, relationships, and most social situations.
I stayed on the shore.
It wasn’t until I pushed past the breaking point, let the fear arrive, and accepted it that I began to heal. I knew it may feel like was dying but I wouldn’t die, it may feel like everybody could tell I was struggling, but most couldn’t. I had to get to the point where I accepted the feelings, but I ignored the threats of those feelings. I allowed the panic and fear to be there, I didn’t fight it, I didn’t ignore it, but I welcomed it. Because I could tell it lost more of its power over me every time I didn’t give in to it.
I discovered later that thousands of people used this idea of allowing and accepting the fear to eventually overcome it. And honestly, after years of research, it’s a more effective approach today than ever before. This idea has found its way into treatment for anxiety, books about overcoming fear, and even an approach for healing OCD and other mental issues.
I will list some specific ideas for you to practice that use this idea, the absolute best book on the subject I have read to date, and some encouraging words as soon as I give you one more analogy.
For a brief time, I studied a martial art known as Aikido. Unlike other martial arts, Aikido seeks to use the force of the attacker against him. I never learned kicks or punches. Instead I learned how to utilize the strength and speed of the attacker, take his momentum and turn that into a hold, throw, or joint lock. The idea is to subdue the other person, without allowing harm to yourself and limiting the harm you do to him. I see this approach to fear the same way, don’t run from it, don’t attempt to match it blow for blow. Allow it to be there, utilize the energy for a better result.
As promised, here are some things we need to Acknowledge and some Actions we need to take:
Acknowledge these ideas when fear shows up.
- Allow the temporary emotion and physical results of fear.
- Accept that they can’t hurt you.
- Don’t blame yourself or feel guilty.
- Realize millions of people have felt like this.
- Most people who struggle with fear are highly intelligent and incredibly creative.
Actions to take when fear shows up:
- Set your attitude to “fear is present, I accept it.”
- Call fear’s bluff, say to yourself “I won’t fear the fear.”
- Use the energy, burn the extra fuel, take a walk or a similar activity.
- Pick one small thing to accomplish, then find another.
- Engage in what is around you, co-workers, friends, read or study.
I recommend the book From Panic to Power, by Lucinda Bassett, it has a slightly different approach than what I use but it has a lot of enlightening information.
I recommend Rewire Your Anxious Brain, by Catherine M. Pittman PHD, lots of research and great encouragement.
The best and most helpful book is DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks, by Barry McDonagh. This book presents generally the same ideas I have given here, including the author’s own story and research to undergird the approach.
A few thoughts:
- As a Pastor, you would expect me to include scriptures and maybe some spiritual insights, I will get to that later in this series. But for now, I want to make sure you understand that you are normal, many people struggle with fear. You are loved by a good God who didn’t design us to suffer with fear. Unfortunately, I let religion add to my fear early on. Not only did I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, but I also had guilt about not being able to conquer fear. From a limited understanding of Christianity, I got caught in a circle of shame, I had faith but I continued to fail, I believed God could deliver me but blamed myself when it didn’t happen. I will present what I believe to be the right theological position on fear at the end of this series.
- Find someone to encourage you, my wife was instrumental in helping me overcome fear. Find an understanding friend, a patient family member, or a qualified counselor. Talking through your fear with the right person will go a long way to diffusing its impact on you.
- There is no shame in counseling, medication, or an entirely different approach than what I present here. While I believe this is the most effective way of healing from and overcoming fear. My hope is that you find healing, and I really don’t care how you get there. If medication has worked for you, God bless you. If counseling is producing good results for you, God bless you. If you found a different way to conquer fear, God bless you for it.
My goal is healing for you, because many people are crippled by fear, driven to addictions by fear, or completely withdrawn from others because of fear.
I have overcome it, that doesn’t mean it never shows up. It does. Just a few weeks ago, after years of freedom from it, it showed up. I welcomed it, continued to move on in spite of it.
I pushed out beyond the breakers, and I refused to stay on the shore.
Next week (January 16th) we will look at Attitudes we ought to consider as we overcome fear. We will also look at the benefits of fear when it is experienced in the right context.