At the end of each new intake evaluation I always ask my patients to delineate one to three concrete goals for their work in therapy. Many of them don’t even have to give it any thought, and immediately and confidently say: “I want to lose this sense of my fear, and make these symptoms of anxiety go away”.
Yet, from what I have learned through my training, mentors, and my own therapy, and what I tell my patients when they embark on a journey to rid themselves of anxiety and fear…
Not only is it impossible to rid yourself of these feelings, it is detrimental. The point of therapy isn’t to “fix” you, or to make your feelings go away, but rather to help you learn the skills to enable yourself to bring those feelings into balance, to an adaptive level, where they belong.
Fear, you see, is evolutionary. The fact that our fight or flight mechanisms arouse us to impending dangers or threats is a gift. Anxiety, which is similar to fear, but engages more of the thinking part of our brain, is also just as adaptive. If we never got anxious, we’d never go to the doctor, study for an exam, make sure we have a retirement plan in place, or pay our electric bills. In fact, anxiety is linked to conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is linked to longevity.
Yes, the inability to feel anxious can shorten your life! So, by that logic, anxiety is life-promoting!
Here is the thing to remember though. It is about working to keep the anxiety and fear at adaptable levels, and to live not in spite of these feelings, but because of them!
I personally struggle with the balance of adaptive and less adaptive anxiety all the time. Here’s just a little example:
A few weeks ago, I woke up at 4am. I couldn’t sleep – at first, I didn’t really feel much of anything. I just lay in bed, not knowing what to do, so I just looked up at the ceiling. I finally got up and walked around, shut the light, opened the light, shut the light, got some water, went back into bed, got out of bed, and at that point I was starting to cycle through some very destructive and fear-induced thought processes. I was starting to feel mentally and physiologically stressed, but then…
here was my moment…
I put my sneakers on and I could feel some sort of new adrenaline rush inside me, not a toxic one, but one that lifted me up (there’s a fine line between these adrenaline rushes, different mindset, but same ‘ol physiology). Whether I was excited or stressed, my fight or flight was elicited. I think the interpretation of what it means is the difference between the biophysiological and psychosocial consequences of the rush.
This rush catapulted me to the gym, finally feeling energized enough to exercise. I nearly skipped all the way there, and when I arrived the sight of sweaty people elated me – so many people alive and moving and motivated to heal and live longer by bringing their heart rate up, or combating obesity, or high blood sugar, or just general malaise, or a depressed stupor. I was inspired by this tableau, which touted the need for social milieus to act out the yearnings of the mind and body to thrive. We were all acting on our fears together.
Fear and anxiety are the human struggle, and the struggle is real. My therapist encourages me, and I in turn encourage my own patients, to embark on living a healthier life, the life they desire, by embracing their fear, without letting it cripple them. And fear, can most definitely cripple.
Many people have said, “Use fear as fuel”, and while the catchphrase might be cliché, it couldn’t be truer. There is nothing to rid ourselves of, only everything to embrace…
What has your experience been? Are you up for embracing your fear and working WITH it?
Let’s embrace all of ourselves; especially those BrainCurves :).
– Dr. Jen