It’s okay to be afraid. Fear is human and understandable and is known to all of us. Fear signals us to fight—or to flee—in order to protect ourselves. But what happens when we don’t know what we’re afraid of, or when fear overtakes us? That may cause us to become anxious, paralyzed or panicked.
Panic or anxiety often prevents us from seeing what’s going on and how to deal with it rationally and effectively. If you’re afraid that the mountain lion you just encountered on the hiking trail is about to attack you, you are likely to run (which is the exact wrong thing to do. It is likely to trigger the chase that lions are better at than we are). So then, what can you do when anxiety or panic gets the better of you?
First, see if you can identify exactly what you are worried about or afraid of. See if you can name your fear – it will help you to create a strategy for overcoming it. Second, many people have found that deep breathing calms the nerves. Take a deep inhale, hold it for five seconds or more, release. Repeat this for five full minutes. Deep breathing helps more oxygen get into your body, and with more oxygen we think more clearly.
Third, practice relaxation exercises, such as meditation or prayer. Meditation involves sitting quietly and clearing your mind of all thoughts, simply paying attention to your breathing. Fourth, exercise. Go for a hike in the nearest park or recreation area, or walk around the block several times. Exercise helps calm us down and gives us perspective. Fifth, refrain from alcohol and caffeine, or cut down on them. Caffeine is likely to contribute to your anxiety or panic.
Finally, ask yourself the following questions, created by author Fredrike Bannink in the book “101 Solution-Focused Questions for Help With Anxiety.” What will I be doing differently when anxiety/worrying is less of a problem in my daily life? How can I comfort myself? Who else can (or does) comfort me? What else have I been through that was difficult, and what helped me then? Can any of those be useful to me now? What would convince me I’m on the right track to get over this problem? What strengths do I have in standing up to this fear? What wisdom have I gained from difficult times that I would like to pass on to people I care about? What do I do when I am at my best? When have I coped well, and how did I do it?
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder, Colorado. His column is in its 25th year of publication. You can reach him at (303) 758-8777, or email him through his website: www.neilrosenthal.com. The second edition of his book: “Love, Sex and Staying Warm: Creating A Vital Relationship,” recently hit the #1 best seller list on Amazon its first day of release, both nationally and internationally.