23 October 2012

Living with Fear

I’ve been involved in a few conversations online recently about ways to cope with fear and anxiety. As a person living with PTSD, fear is part of my life … every day, I feel worried, though unlike most of the fear I’ve dealt with in my life, this has no name or shape, just a vague feeling that is really tough to grapple with because it’s not a response to anything in the present, it is an echo from the past.

Still, I’ve learned a few coping strategies, and the people I’ve shared them with found them helpful, so I thought I’d explain some of them here as well, in case what I’ve learned can be of use to someone else.

My personal philosophy has been heavily influenced by science fiction, so I have some odd ideas. This one comes from the Dune novels. There is a poem that is frequently repeated by some of the characters when they are frightened, called the Litany Against Fear. It goes like this:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me, and when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see fear's path.
Where it has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I took the time to memorize this, and I repeat it to myself when I am scared. I face my fear: I look right at what I'm scared of and I name it. It is awful when you are just scared and have no words. Words help to corral the thing and give shape to the fear. "I am afraid that my loved one will die." "I am afraid that my boyfriend will dump me." With the floating leftover echoes of past fear that dog me these days, I can say "I am afraid that this feeling isn't going to go away."

Once you have named the fear, you permit it to pass over and through. To me, this means imagining what will happen if the thing you are afraid of comes to pass. This is the hard part, but really, when you are afraid it boils down to something like bad things will happen if this occurs. What is really frightening is the consequences of the event. "If my boyfriend dumps me, I will be sad. Maybe nobody else will like me ever again. Maybe I will be alone for a long time, or always." When you list them out, making an explicit list of what it is that you think could happen, you can get a better handle on it all. When it’s just a vague sense of “bad stuff”, well, you can’t plan, or mitigate, or cope. You just go in circles, the fear getting bigger and bigger until it overwhelms you. The little death that brings total obliteration.

But if you make the effort to list the consequences, you are facing your fear fully. Carry it all through to the logical conclusion, no matter how silly the original statement might seem. No talking yourself out of it with “oh, that’s so unlikely” or “that’s a stupid thing to be afraid of”, you just say what you think, and then process it as a thought experiment. Like this: “If my boyfriend dumps me, I will be sad." And then what? "I will cry." And then what? "I will get angry." And then what? "I will write a letter to him telling him exactly how I feel, and then burn it." Okay. What else am I afraid of?  "If this relationship doesn’t work, nobody else will like me ever again." Is that realistic? "Maybe not but I'm afraid of it anyway." Okay, so what if nobody ever likes you ever again? "Well, I guess I can eat cereal for supper and nobody will chastise me, and I can dress any way I like and be the crazy cat lady at the end of the street." Could that be fun? "Yeah, maybe."

You get the idea. The key thing is to remember that even if the thing you are afraid of comes to pass, when the fear has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see fear's path... where it has gone there will be nothing, only I will remain. No matter what it is you are afraid of, on the other side of it, you'll still be there, making the next decision, and the next decision, and the next decision. (This is slightly different if the fear is "I am afraid I might die", because well, we all die eventually, and it's best to be ready for that no matter what, because when it comes, it comes, and that's all there is to it. In this case, the best thing is to say "and if that happens, what would I want to have had done/settled first?" and make sure all that is done so you are always ready for today to be the last day. It's actually a very freeing way to live, always being ready to go.)

This is a constructive way to look at fear: fear is a message that something is coming that requires your attention. Give it your attention, don’t try to run away and avoid it, put your energy towards facing the fearful thing and being proactive: do whatever mitigation or pre-planning you can, think through some possible coping strategies and get things ready for ‘just in case’ if you can. When you've done all you can do, stand bravely knowing you are ready for what is or might be coming.

At that point, get out your knitting.

If the worry comes back, repeat the process. If you start going in circles, try writing it down (I often go over and over and over things if I haven't written it down, but if I write it down, then I say "it's on the list" and can carry on). I recite prayers, memorized ones that are repetitive, not because God didn’t hear me the first time but because I need the repeated phrases and assurance that I’m being heard to help me stay calm. These are particularly helpful when I can’t sleep.

Through it all, I remind myself that no matter what may come, I am held in the hands of God, and I am perfectly, utterly safe. The part of me that is me cannot truly be harmed, not ever, and all the rest is just the journey I am on while I am here.

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