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How to Tackle Fear and Anxiety Cognitively, Behaviorally, and Spiritually

“The beautiful thing about fear is that when you run to it, it runs away.” ~Robin Sharma

During my first-grade choir concert, my classmate, Meg, fainted from the top row of the bleachers, and in a subconscious gesture of empathy, I went down right after her, breaking my glasses and flailing on the gymnasium floor.

It’s possible that this triggered some kind of coping mechanism in my brain, because I started fainting again and again.

One time I fainted at the dentist’s office—immediately after the dentist injected me with my first round of Novocain—then months later in a hospital parking lot after a small medical procedure.

I also fainted a few days after getting my ears pierced. I was showing my grandmother my new gold studs, and I happened to look toward the TV just as Nellie Olsen fainted during a Little House on the Prairie rerun, and that was enough, over I went.

What affected me the most during those early years of growing up was not the tangible act of fainting, but my anxiety anticipating when and where I would faint next. Whenever I wasn’t moving, whenever I tried to be still, my thoughts traveled to the fear of fainting. And because of that, I tried to keep my mind constantly active.

I had several tests, and the doctors found nothing medically wrong with me. I literally scared myself to the point of fainting. Though I never let fear prevent me from doing things, inner struggles and cautious dread were always present. It made living in the moment very difficult.

Going to church became a major source of stress for me. I had time to think, worry, and become anxious. These were ideal fainting conditions for me.

I’d have panic attacks during Sunday mass without anyone knowing. Moments of pulling my hair, pinching my skin, feeling my heart pounding out of my chest were common, all while trying to will myself from fainting.

This continued for years.

I seemed to outgrow my anxiety attacks after high school, and I continued through college and beyond, without thinking much about my prior angst. I got married and had three children. Then, during my late thirties, my anxiety returned with a vengeance, escalating to a fear of driving on the highway.

Things got worse in my early forties when I developed major health concerns. Again, there was nothing physically wrong with me; I was purely manifesting physical symptoms from worrying about a certain disease or medical condition. It was quite a skill—one that I was not proud of, but one that certainly awakened me to the power of my mind.

My fear ran deep and was so powerful that it physically controlled me.

The more I tried to ignore my anxiety, the more it escalated until it gradually controlled the person I was becoming. I didn’t like “me” anymore.

I was afraid of everything. I talked to my doctor, read every Louise Hay book, went to biofeedback, performed EFT, and saw a few therapists. I would do anything to remember who I was before the fear of living got in my way.

The funny thing was, no one else noticed because this overwhelming anxiety never stopped me from doing anything. It just sucked the spirit out of me. No one knew that, to me, life felt really scary.

I wanted to crawl up in a ball with my kids. I wanted to control every waking move I made and make sure we were all safe.

I remember a profound moment one fall day after finishing a run. Out of breath and standing there with my hands on my knees, I looked up at the trees and saw a leaf floating from a tree. I stood and prayed that I’d learn how to let go and release my inner struggles and be as light and free as that leaf.

That was when I decided I would not consume my every waking moment with this fear. I would be the person who chose to live life fully.

So this is what I know now.

To let go of something, you need to lean in.

This is counterintuitive. We all have a built-in “fight, flight or freeze” response to stress, which is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of fear and is exhibited by the urge to flee, run, or freeze and do nothing.

In many ways, anxiety can protect us from harmful situations. In other ways, when the threat is not harmful, it can prevent us from functioning at our fullest capacity and experiencing all that life has to offer.

I spent many years of my life trying to push fear away and running as fast as I could from it. But what I needed to do was to allow myself to lean into fear, to work through it, to face it head on. I needed to show my anxiety and fear that I wasn’t afraid anymore.

This was a frightening act. But the alternative was to continue to run—and this was even more terrifying.

So I began to allow, to surrender, to trust. I stopped fighting and made a conscious choice to choose love over fear—again and again. Battling and rejecting a part of myself had only caused feelings of isolation and anguish.

I searched to understand the power of my subconscious and began to process fainting as my defense mechanism. I realized that if I was going to move through this fear, I’d have to love and accept myself, including the anxiety within me.

I stood firmly anchored in the ground of acceptance. Of all of me. And the result was a newer, more powerful version of myself—one that no longer was afraid to live.

If you’re struggling with anxiety and/or fear, here are eight ways to move forward. In more severe instances, you may need the help of a medical professional.

Cognitively

Acknowledge your fear.

This is a major first step. We often ignore our fears and anxiety for so long that they progress into a part of us.

Compartmentalize your fear, separating it from yourself. Then peel back the layers and find out what it is that you fear. Is it disappointing others? Rejection? Failing? Something else? Recognize that it’s holding you back from becoming your true self.

Fear is sneaky. It can be quite obvious, presenting as physiological symptoms, or it can be much more obscure. Procrastination, perfectionism, and overwhelm can all be forms of fear.

Explore if any of these are showing up for you and consider how they may be contributing to your lack of progress.  When you pinpoint the underlying fear and how it is presenting itself, you diminish the power it has over you.

Initially, I believed I was afraid of fainting. After much reflection with my coach and therapist, and as my thoughts evolved, I was able to identify my underlying fear—the fear of dying. Every time I fainted, my blood pressure would drop and I’d lose consciousness, essentially looking death in the eyes over and over again.

Once I recognized this, even though it was still scary, the awareness allowed me to use coping skills to move forward.

Lean into your fear.

When you feel like running or fleeing, it’s time to face your fear with courage. Although our automatic response is often to run away, numb our feelings, or somehow distract ourselves, escaping only temporarily relieves anxiety. Fear will return, possibly in a different form, until you choose to confront it with kindness.

Bring yourself into the present moment by noticing the sensations in your body. Where Is fear showing up as discomfort for you? In your chest? Your stomach? Your throat? Fully experience it.

Befriend your fear.

Let fear know that you’re not afraid of it. Ask it: What are you trying to tell me? What do you want me to know?

What I learned from asking these questions was that fear was trying to keep me safe from harm. A part of my past needed to be acknowledged and fear was whispering, “You can’t move on and become your most powerful self until you work through this, my friend.”

Then thank it for trying to protect you in the only way it knew how.

Behaviorally

Exercise.

For me, running has always been a huge stress reliever. Whether it’s running or yoga or something in between, movement calms you down by releasing chemicals called endorphins.

Make healthy choices.

When I feel stressed, I limit my sugar and caffeine intake, since sugar crashes can cause irritability and tension, and stimulants like caffeine can worsen anxiety and even trigger panic attacks. A well-balanced diet full of healthy, whole foods will help also alleviate anxiety. Be sure to eat breakfast to keep your blood sugar steady, and stay hydrated to help your mind and body perform at their best.

Breathe.

Since I have made yoga and meditation a part of my daily routine, I’ve noticed a difference in how I react to stressful situations. Slotting this time into my morning ensures I get it done before the day gets busy. When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, it’s harder to move into meditation and deep breathing, so it’s helpful to make this an everyday practice.

Spiritually

Trust.

Fear and anxiety can stem from self-doubt and insecurities. If you regularly work on accessing your inner wisdom, and acting on what you learn, you’ll develop more trust in your ability to do what’s best for you and handle whatever comes at you. You can begin to strengthen your relationship to your inner wisdom by journaling, meditating, and sitting in silence. This is an ongoing process that requires exploration.

One of the most effective ways to build self-trust is to take small steps forward. Know that it can (and most likely will) be scary, but once you step out of your comfort zone, you’ll see that much of what you were afraid of was in your imagination. To make this easier, I often recall a time when I trusted myself, despite my self-doubt, and things turned out positively.

Surrender

When you have done all you can, let go. Discern what is outside of your control and find the courage to release all expectations of it. You may just find a sense of relief in allowing life to unfold naturally.

I still have moments when I get anxious and overly worried. In these moments, I think about the influence my mind has over my body. Perhaps it’s not about resisting my mind’s ability to control me, but rather redirecting its incredible power to work in my favor.

And with that, I can move mountains.

Article By: Carly Hamilton-Jones of Tiny Buddha

This post was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com. You can find the original post at https://tinybuddha.com.

Eating Disorders and Holidays

For many people the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. It is a time to gather with family and friends, catch up on each other’s lives, and share a few laughs. For most people, highlights of the holiday season includes the food and sitting down to enjoy a traditional holiday meal. For people with eating disorders, however, the holidays are often not quite so enjoyable. In fact, they can be the ultimate nightmare. For many sufferers, the holidays bring tremendous stress, anxiety, and fear.

It is common for people who suffer from eating disorders to experience an increase in symptoms of their illness as the holiday season approaches. This may be due to stress over the impending festivities and/or anticipation of the presence of challenging (often high calorie) food in the weeks to come. Many sufferers tell themselves that if they lose a few pounds prior to the holidays, they will be able to allow themselves to eat like everyone else. In reality, this approach rarely works and the eating disorder reasserts itself during the family time.

The following is an account of the holidays as written by Colleen Thompson:

“Whether it was Christmas, Easter or any other holiday, I could never relax and enjoy the day because I knew the moment would arrive when I would have to sit down at the table and face all that food. Usually with my in-laws I could get away with not eating very much. I especially liked having people over to my house, because I could keep busy in the kitchen and spend less time at the table. When I was with my own family, I would sit and eat with everyone else, but the meal was never enjoyed because I was always too busy adding up all the calories in my head and the fear of getting fat would grow stronger with each bite of food. I always looked forward to the moment I could leave, so that I could rush home and purge. The days following the holidays were just as bad. The guilt I would feel was enormous and I would feel desperate to try and make up for all the calories I had consumed. I would really restrict my intake and I would exercise more. Holidays were a time that I just never looked forward to.”

Holidays and intense periods of time spent with family can be stressful for all people, not just those who suffer from eating disorders. Holidays often place pressure on families and this pressure can result in frayed tempers. For families who have a member who is affected by an eating disorder, the pressure and resulting stress can be even greater. It is important for family members to remember that food-related situations are stressful for sufferers of eating disorders and to try above all else to remain calm and loving during fraught times.

It is an unfortunate reality that many eating disorder sufferers dread the holiday season. Fortunately, this can be improved with proper treatment. After recovery, sufferers can progress to a stage in which they enjoy and look forward to holidays once again.

Planning Ahead

In the midst of the problem however, good planning will help make the holidays a little easier. Below is a list of suggestions to help cope with the holidays:

  • Talk to your treatment team and help identify what difficulties you may expect and problem-solve some strategies for dealing with them.
  • If you are following a meal plan try to stick to it over the holidays. Try to anticipate some of the situations that will make following it harder, such as time in transit, time changes, and not having access to your usual foods. If you are traveling, plan how or where you will get the food you need.
  • If you are traveling, it is wise to pack some snack foods both for the time in transit and to have upon arrival at the destination until you can go shopping.
  • Make a list of things you can do to help relax and distract yourself from the feelings of fullness after a big meal. e.g. go for a walk, take a bath, read, visit a friend, go for a drive, etc. If you are traveling be sure to bring some of your distraction activities.
  • Have the phone numbers of your treatment team and friends available to you.
  • If you need to be at a function with certain people who make you uncomfortable, plan some ways to excuse yourself from their immediate presence. Put your own health above anything else at all times.
  • Try not to count calories and try to avoid the scale.
  • If you feel yourself starting to panic because you are feeling too full or if you allowed yourself to eat foods that you consider to be forbidden, remind yourself it is okay to eat what you did, that food will not make you fat, and it is normal to eat more during the holidays. Most people do and it really is okay.
  • If you end up bingeing or purging, do not beat yourself up over it. Just put it behind you and move forward. Try to get back on track at the next meal.
  • Prepare responses to people who may say something to you that would make you uncomfortable.
  • If you feel you need to, set some boundaries for yourself by telling people ahead of time that you do not want anyone to comment on your appearance or your eating.
  • Be sure to plan some time for yourself to do something that you enjoy. It is very important to take special care of yourself during the holidays. Holidays are a very stressful time for people with eating disorders and it is important that you do whatever you need to do in order to make them easier on yourself.As you progress in recovery there will come a time when food will no longer prevent you from enjoying the holidays. You will be able to think of them as a time to gather with loved ones. You can make your own special memories, and you may even be able to start looking forward to them.

    HAPPY HOLIDAYS

    (What if:)

    H unger means you eat when physically hungry instead of emotionally hungry.

    A ttitudes about your size has to with the size of your heart instead of the size of your body.

    P eople accept and value you for who you are, not according to how you look.

    P roblems are resolved in ways other than stuffing your feelings with food.

    Y ou spend as much time and energy on helping others, as you do on how you look.

     

    H appiness comes from within rather than from expectations of others.

    O ccasions for the holidays emphasize relating to others instead of emphasizing food.

    L ove of self means you deserve to treat yourself in the best humanly possible way.

    I dentity of self involves more than how you look.

    D isapproval of self is changed to approval of who you are.

    A cceptance of what one can not change includes your body features.

    Y ou treat yourself as you treat your best friend.

    S ociety values you for being you without emphasis to your weight or size.

    Written by:
    Sharon Sward, Past President of Eating Disorder Professionals of Colorado
    Author of You Are More Than What You Weigh