How Getting Perspective Can Help Conquer Fear and Anxiety
We all feel scared, worried and anxious from time to-time, we all have our own personal obstacles, hurdles and pot-holes to negotiate our way around. This needn’t be a problem – a healthy, beneficial attitude is all we need if we are to deal effectively with the challenges of life.
This short blog explores a number of issues concerning fear and anxiety in terms of what they are and how they can be dealt with. The role of self-talk, the constant chatter that goes on inside our heads constantly and how we can utilise our self-talk in a helpful, beneficial way is also discussed.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are similar but they are not the same so what are the similarities and differences between them?
Fear is a powerful, unpleasant, distressing emotion we experience when we believe we are in danger from serious risk or harm. The perceived threat is, moreover, real and present in the here and now.
Fear is a useful emotion to have – it warns us about the danger we are facing providing us, therefore with the opportunity to protect ourselves and survive. We may do this through either:
- Standing still hoping the danger will go away;
- Running away from the impending threat if we don’t think we can defeat it or;
- Confronting the threat if we do believe we can defeat it.
We experience fear when we believe we are in danger – this is beneficial to us if and only if the beliefs we hold about the perceived threat are based on what is real. We learn, moreover from our experiences – having confronted a perceived threat, we log that experience so we know what to do should we need to protect ourselves from such a threat again in the future.
Fear is, therefore a useful emotion to have. Problems can arise however, when the beliefs we hold about a perceived threat are not based on what is real but on what we imagine.
Imagine for a moment you have a 5-year old daughter. Your daughter comes downstairs one night saying there is a monster under her bed. She is scared and says she would like to sleep with you in your bed that night. What do you do? Do you:
- Agree with your daughter that there is indeed a monster under her bed and that yes, she can sleep with you that night. Or;
- Reassure her by taking her back to her room and showing her that there is no monster under the bed after which you tuck her up in her own bed?
I feel fairly confident you would choose the second option. You understand, first of all, that colluding with your daughter would be unhelpful and unbeneficial to say the least; and secondly, you understand that your daughter’s anxiety is simply the product of her imagination and the sooner this is brought to her attention the better. You understand that your daughters fear will go away as soon as she realises there is nothing to worry about it. No threat, no fear.
The fear your daughter experiences would, interestingly enough, be the same whether there is, or whether there isn’t a monster under her bed. Either way, the fear will go away when she realises she is no longer in danger.
Most of us have had similar experiences – we may believe, for example, that we are being followed by a thug who we think is going to mug us or that there is a burglar in the back-garden planning to break into the house only to find out, following further investigation that the potential mugger is simply a late-night office worker rushing to catch the night bus home or that the noise we heard in the garden was only our neighbours cat on the prowl.
The fear we initially experience goes away as soon as we realise we aren’t in danger – no threat, no fear. Likewise, the little girls fear will also fade and eventually disappear when, following the guidance of a non-colluding parent she bends down, looks under her bed and sees that there is no monster under her bed or anywhere else for that matter. There never was a monster in her room, but there was one in her imagination. Testing the reality of the situation enabled the child to stop imagining there being a monster under her bed. Likewise, with the imagined thug or burglar – as soon as we stop imagining there being a threat the fear goes away.
Fear, therefore is based largely on a threat we believe to be a real – a threat that exists, moreover in the here and now. Fear, however, can also be based, as we have seen on what we imagine to be real. Fear arising from what we imagine to be real is the result of certain beliefs we hold – we may believe we are in danger when we are not. These particular beliefs are not based on what is true but on what we believe to be true. These beliefs are misguided, erroneous, irrational, and simply incorrect – nor are they based on anything that actually exists in the here and now, they are based, on the contrary, on what we imagine to be the case, including what we imagine may happen in the future. The difference between what is believed to be real as opposed to what is imagined also highlights the differences between fear and anxiety.
Anxiety is a powerful, unpleasant, distressing emotion we experience when we believe we are in danger from serious risk or harm. The perceived threat, however, is not real and nor is it present in the here and now. Anxiety is directed, more importantly towards what we believe may cause us harm – it protects us therefore from events in the future that may threaten, endanger or cause us harm.
It’s important, as we have seen that we learn from our experiences. Having experienced a fearful event in the here and now, we need to learn from that event so we can prepare ourselves, avoid or protect ourselves against that event should it happen again. This can, within itself be useful but it can also lead to anxiety – we can, for example, become hyper-vigilant as we worry and stress about up-and-coming events. Feeling apprehensive and worried about up-and-coming events are examples of the anxiety we feel following fearful encounters that were real. We may find ourselves rehearsing future events, working out what we should do or what we could do to avoid or defeat the perceived threat.
Anxiety can, like fear be useful in this respect. Feeling anxious about making a speech can motivate us to prepare the speech well, feeling anxious about driving at high speed encourages us to concentrate and pay attention, feeling anxious about an exam can encourage us to study well, and so on. So, anxiety can be useful but it can also cause us a lot of harm.
Unhelpful, unbeneficial, anxiety is an emotion that serves no useful purpose whatsoever. There is no benefit at all in worrying endlessly about events that might happen in the future but almost certainly will not.
Most anxiety is, in this sense, anticipatory anxiety – is characterised by intense feelings of stress and worry about what is believed might happen in the future. The events that concern the sufferer rarely materialise but this makes no difference to the suffering – the sufferer still feels anxious.
Feelings of anxiety are always directed towards problems that are imagined to exist in the future – problems moreover that very rarely, if ever materialise. We fall into the trap of worrying and feeling anxious about problems we think might happen when in reality they hardly ever appear. This constant worrying will be reflected in our thinking – particularly ‘what if’ thinking. Examples might so something like this:
“What if the plane crashes on take-off?”
“What if I lose my job during the next round of redundancies?”
“What if the pain I’m feeling in my stomach is cancer?”
“What if I forget my lines?”
“What if I’m ignored and nobody talks to me?”
The anxiety we feel, as we have seen is nearly always anticipatory anxiety – we imagine ourselves under threat, we imagine ourselves facing danger, we imagine ourselves being harmed and we imagine ourselves not being able to cope. Anxiety, as with imagined problems leaves the sufferer feeling hopeless, helpless and out of control psychologically and emotionally which of course just fuels the sufferer’s anxiety.
The anxious feelings we experience are created therefore by the anxious thoughts we have. Our thoughts create the feelings we have which in turn drives our actions. Anxious thoughts create anxious feelings resulting, more-often-than-not, in avoidance or safety seeking behaviours. The key, therefore, to overcoming anxiety is recognising and changing the unhelpful, unbeneficial thoughts that create the anxious feelings in the first place. And we can do this through disputing the rationality of the anxious thoughts we create which in turn will enable us to reduce our anxious feelings. We can, for example, dispute the anxious thoughts we are experiencing by saying something along the lines of:
“What is the probability of this happening?” “How likely is it that this will happen?” “Where is the evidence to support my fears?” We can also ask ourselves questions such as “And if it did happen could I cope?” “If I don’t believe I could cope then what can I do to improve my coping skills?” “What skills and resources do I need in order to deal with situations such as this?” “What do I need to do to develop the skills and resources I need?”
Anxiety and Self-Talk
This, within itself, reminds us of the importance of self-talk – the constant chatter that goes on inside our heads each-and-every day. How we talk to ourselves, how we interpret events and experiences, how we explain situations to ourselves is critically important. The extent to which we are able to defeat anticipatory anxiety depends largely on how we talk to ourselves. For example, if I tell myself that certain situations make me feel anxious and that situations such as these are awful, intolerable, and unbearable then I’m unlikely to make much progress in overcoming my anxiety. I’ve just talked myself into a corner with thinking that is rigid, inflexible and completely inconsistent with reality. Is the situation really awful or is it really just a bit unpleasant? Is the situation really intolerable or is it simply a tough and difficult challenge? Am I really stressed or am I simply under a bit of pressure? Is this situation making me anxious or am I making myself anxious through the way I’m choosing to ‘see’ the situation?
A situation can only be experienced as being awful, intolerable or unbearable if it’s believed to be so – it’s our beliefs that drives, not only our self-talk but how we come to interpret events and experiences. Changing our self-talk can help change, not only what we believe but how we experience events and experiences. Telling ourselves that a situation is challenging but not intolerable makes all the difference in the world. This isn’t a question of denying the reality of the situations we find ourselves in – I’m not suggesting you tell yourself that the everything is rosy in the garden when it isn’t.
On the contrary, life can be tough at times but this is not the same as saying that it’s awful! Also, just because I want to feel happy, confident and relaxed all the time, doesn’t mean I have to – I can accept the fact that I may feel challenged at times. Being honest with ourselves and accepting the reality of the situation we find ourselves in is critically important. For example, although I would like to feel relaxed and happy all day today I accept the fact that this may not be possible. I may, for example, feel a bit frustrated or challenged at some point during the day which means if I do then that’s okay because I’ve made an allowance for it. I’m not going to give myself a hard time just because I didn’t feel wonderful all day long.
Someone wishing to overcome anxiety may tell themselves that they ought to feel relaxed all day, that they shouldn’t be feeling anxious, that they should feel happy and relaxed all the time. But this kind of thinking, as we have seen is incredibly rigid, inflexible and inconsistent with reality – the reality of the matter is people do feel anxious from time to time. The rigidity and inflexibility of this kind of thinking is simply going to lead the person in question to being disappointed with themselves the moment they start to feel anxious.
They will berate themselves saying something along the lines of; “I told myself I would feel relaxed all day today and I’ve just caught myself getting a bit anxious. I’m rubbish at managing my thoughts and feelings.” This same person could talk to themselves in a more kind and charitable way saying something along lines of; “I would like to feel calm and relaxed all day today but I don’t have to. I can make room for a little bit of anxiety. If I do create an anxious thought I won’t tell myself off for doing so, I’ll simply deal with it. I’ll delete it and replace it with something more beneficial.”
It goes without saying that we all want to feel relaxed, happy and content – nobody wants to feel worried, anxious or sad if they can help it but the fact of the matter is we are unlikely to feel wonderful all the time. Acknowledging that we may feel a bit worried, sad or anxious at some point during the day means that when we do feel these negative emotions popping up we are unlikely to give ourselves a hard time over it. And, more importantly, we are far more likely to banish them and replace them with thoughts that are positive, empowering and beneficial.
Helpful, empowering thoughts and beliefs teach us to accept that we are human which by implication means we are fallible and prone to making mistakes from time to time. We will, of course, succeed many, many times during our lives but the fact of the matter is we will also fail. Accepting that we are fallible also boosts and protects our sense of self-worth – what we feel about ourselves doesn’t become dependent, in other words, on whether we succeed or not – we can, for example, fail and still feel good about ourselves.
Accepting that we occasionally fail helps defeat perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, and the absolutist thinking that inevitably leads to stress and anxiety. We simply cannot succeed or feel great all the time and insisting that we should will simply lead us to feel bad about ourselves when we fail.
A helpful, empowering thought or belief about ourselves might go something like this:
“I accept myself for who I am. I’m not perfect nor do I want to be. I’m a human being which means I’m fallible and prone therefore to making mistakes and failing. My sense of self-worth is not dependent upon whether I succeed or fail. If I succeed, great! But if I don’t that’s okay too – I’m not going to give myself a hard time over it.”
When we truly love someone we love that person unconditionally – we love them for who they are, there are no conditions attached. We don’t love them any less when they fail or make a mistake. The psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term unconditional, positive regard to define this type of acceptance.
Self-acceptance involves unconditional, positive, self-regard – our sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on other words, on whether we succeed – we regard ourselves highly even when we fail and make mistakes.
It goes without saying that helpful, empowering thoughts and beliefs are the best ones to have if we want to succeed in life but success cannot, of course, be guaranteed – we cannot insist upon it. Having helpful, empowering thoughts and beliefs and a realistic outlook on life including accepting the fact that we may screw up from time to time means we are far more likely to deal effectively with failure when it happens – we are far more likely to get up, dust ourselves down, explore what went wrong, and get on with living our lives if our beliefs are healthy and empowering that is. Rigid, inflexible thoughts and beliefs, by comparison, lead to feelings of shame, guilt, frustration, self-loathing and of course, anxiety when we fail.
Life can be tough at times but the challenges we face needn’t get us down providing we face these challenges with the right mental attitude that is. Our beliefs play a critical role in establishing a mental attitude that will enable us to deal effectively with the challenges of life. Healthy, beneficial beliefs as represented in our self-talk help us to get perspective, to see situations from differing points of view. When we know, we have options open to us; when we think and believe we can succeed and achieve; when we imagine ourselves doing well; when we talk to ourselves in a helpful and beneficial, then and only then can we move forward with optimism and hope.