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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fear and 3 Ways to Handle It

I have been thinking about risk-taking and fear, of late. With the latter, I am all too familiar. Fear can impede risk-taking, which, biologically speaking, is the point of it. However, some of us, those of us who are, ahem, prone to anxiety (fear) have an overdeveloped capacity for it. Mine has been on overdrive lately. There are all kinds of fear, but I’m talking about fear of putting myself Out There, which is intertwined in a codependent way with fear of a negative outcome, a.k.a. failure. Failure.

So the question is why. I read about a book called The Trauma of Everyday Life, by psychologist Mark Epstein. I feel I can speak freely about Mark Epstein’s book because I’ve read one article about it and listened to one interview with Mark Epstein on public radio. I haven’t so much as laid eyes on the actual book, let alone cracked its binding. With that disclaimer out in front, I shall extemporize. With authority.

The book’s thesis, according to The New York Times, is that seemingly small events can traumatize people. While your basic cataclysmic events – death, divorce, bankruptcy – are definite triggers for trauma, an accumulation of small events can have as deleterious an effect on the psyche as an obvious major trauma. We are all, possibly, walking traumatized souls. 

So that’s depressing. Forget I mentioned it.

Okay, it seems depressing, but then again, despite the provocative title of the book the author does talk about a side benefit: Understanding that little things can create a ripple of suffering leads to compassion. Because we feel, we understand what others feel, too. Or at least we can. The guy’s Buddhist AND a psychologist, so you know he’s dripping with compassion.

Perhaps my takeaway should be that if Mark Epstein (and Buddha) is right, I’m normal. Fear and anxiety may be integral to our lives. How we handle them is what matters. Because lists are perennial blog favorites, here’s a list of three possible techniques.

1. Troubleshoot in advance. One way people try to overcome their fear is by listing all the things that could go wrong, then considering how they will react if those things happen and what they can do to counteract them. This sounds pessimistic, but is actually proactive. As I wrote in a previous post, Billy Jean King used this tactic to sharpen her tennis game. She would think about all the things that were out of her control, and then visualize how she would handle them. This, by the way, is one of the techniques Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D, describes in her book Succeed: How to Reach Your Goals.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Hasn’t your mother or father or (in my case) your shrink asked you that? By visualizing it, you do two things. One, you defang the fear by making it concrete; and two, by making it concrete, you open it up to analysis. How can I handle this if it happens? Just like Billy Jean King. 

This kind of visualization is a great way to conquer fear. Fear and anxiety are usually focused on things we can’t control. So imagining what we will do if we encounter those situations reminds us that while we can’t control what happens, we can control how we react to it. Which is exactly what therapists tell their patients and parents tell their children. As ever, the world remains much more out of our control than we would like it to be, but we have the capability to exercise ever more control over our responses to it. So – onward, risk-takers! This puts me in mind of Stephen Covey’s circles of influence and concern. Remember that diagram? There’s the large circle that encloses everything that matters to us – our circle of concern – and there’s the smaller concentric circle inside the larger one that represents our circle of influence – the area over which we have control. That starts with our response in any situation. As we practice working within our circle of influence, and try not to worry about anything outside of it, that circle of influence grows, so eventually we do gain some control over more of what matters.

2. Fake it. Once, one of my housemates was applying to graduate school in journalism. This was eons ago, back when I lived in a cooperative house started by some idealistic MIT grads. Anyway, this housemate impressed me by the juggernaut approach she took to those applications. More of an assault than an approach, to be accurate. When I asked, in awe, how she was accomplishing these things with such ease, while I was doing stuff like missing the deadline for the Ph.D. program at Berkeley and then calling the admissions office and asking if, even though it was too late to apply this year, I was the kind of applicant who had a good chance of getting in next year. My housemate said she just told herself it didn’t matter. Whichever essay she was working on at the moment just didn’t matter, it was no big deal. By faking herself out that way, she got into her first choice school. Into all of them, if I recall correctly. Which it’s likely I do not. Have you noticed how memory skews?

So those are a couple of approaches to dealing with fear and anxiety. If those fail, you can use my approach.

3. My approach. This comprises frantic work, delay, and hypochondria. I get everything ready, so I’m not exactly procrastinating. Then I stop. Run errands. Walk around in circles. Develop imaginary diseases. Eventually, something triggers me to take that final action, to risk.

So, to summarize: 1. face your fear. 2. ignore your fear. 3. project your fear onto something else. 

Then, after you act, you'll feel better. 

Except that I don't. Right now I am awaiting the return of the husband with his neurologist tools, because I think I’ve developed a peripheral neuropathy. Either that or Lyme disease. Or diabetes. Or cancer of the soles of my feet, which are itchy. Possibly I am on the verge of incontinence, and I am certainly raising my blood pressure just by thinking about it. And this reaction is after I acted.

On the plus side, after polishing my book proposal and pacing around the house for a week eating almonds, I queried my list of best hoped for agents and three have nibbled. This brings up a different brace of fears, not of failure, but of its opposite. 

One possible reason for my continued state of being, well, me, is that my anxiety/fear trigger has been switched on so long it doesn't know how to switch off. Possibly I have so much accumulated trauma from everyday life that I can't come down. Perhaps I'm traumatized from constantly experiencing minor trauma. Possibly the possibility of achieving a goal makes me more anxious than the possibility of failing to do it. Maybe Mark Epstein the psychologist would know. Maybe if I read his book, instead of just reading about his book, I would know. Probably I should exercise. Or meditate. I'll get to that later. I think I hear the garage door opening, the husband bringing his doctor's kit.  It's the perfect time to worry about my feet.

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