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Quick disclaimer: There is a significant difference between sporadic spells of anxiety and a chronic anxiety disorder. This piece is meant more to aid with periodic anxious spells rather than treating any condition, which should be addressed by a mental health professional.
Two emotions. Endless misinterpretations.
Fear and anxiety are two of the most perplexing emotions one can have. Both can overtake you and result in a miserable daily life. Conquering fear and anxiety is the work of life and not a life hack that can be acquired by reading a short online essay or listening to a podcast episode. This being said, I’ve personally found the following mindset shifts to be immensely helpful when attempting to control or even leverage fear and anxiety. When these mindset shifts are combined, they may even be able to help the average person pull themself from the occasional bout of anxiety.
Mindset Shift 1: Fear can be useful when correctly identified.
Fear — ”an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger.”
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary
Though fear can be debilitating, it is an instrumental emotion. Without fear, we might find ourselves attempting to cross busy highways on foot, coming too close to the edges of steep heights, or petting dangerous creatures. Fear is a mechanism to protect us from many of the dangers of life.
While this is true, fear is only helpful when it can be leveraged or applied — when it results in a discernable behavioral shift. When it cannot be, it ceases to be fear. It is, instead, anxiety.
Mindset Shift 2: We frequently confuse fear with anxiety and vice versa.
One of the biggest reasons we cling to debilitating anxiety is because we confuse it with helpful fear. As we’ve discussed before, fear is instrumental. Anxiety, however, is not.
- The shovel of fear can dig us free from a situation.
- The shovel of anxiety only deepens our rut.
For this reason, it’s crucial to correctly identify the shovel of fear and the shovel of anxiety. So, the first step out is knowing when you’re clutching the wrong shovel.
Mindset Shift 3: Becoming mindful of anxious thoughts can help you manage them.
You are not your thoughts. If this were the case, you would be incapable of thinking about your thoughts. Humans are unique from other creatures on this planet in that we are capable of offering the Director’s Commentary of our own thought process.
Most of us, however, can rarely distinguish our thinking from thinking about thinking. This thinking about our thoughts can be referred to as “metacognition” but is most commonly referred to as “mindfulness.”
The term “mindfulness” is meant to be used to contrast our default mode — mindlessness. When our thoughts are allowed to ricochet in our heads without control, the result is a dangerous rumination and can culminate in severe anxiety and depression.
Mindset Shift 3: Mind control is an obtainable superpower if it’s your own mind you’re controlling.
Like stopping a ricocheting bullet, catching a mindless thought before it tears through our emotions can feel like a superpower. Mindfulness, however, is not the act of catching speeding bullets but rather slowing them down to the point of plucking them out of thin air. When a thought or reactionary emotion can be slowed down, its details can be more objectively analyzed, its intent considered, and the most appropriate response deployed.
Examining Fear vs. Anxiety in Practice
The next time you experience the frantic gloom of fear or anxiety, as soon as you can identify the sensation, do your best to cease what you’re doing and take hold of the moment for yourself.
- Focus on the raw sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. This present action will help pull the emergency brake on your thought processes.
- Once grounded in the present, aim to perceive this negative emotion as though belonging to someone else. Aim to observe it as objectively as placing a glass slide under the lens of a microscope for examination.
- Carefully inspecting this thought or feeling, ask yourself, “What action is this sensation prompting me to do?”
Leveraging Useful Fear
If this sensation has practical next steps that can prevent ailment or injury, whether of your body, relationships, career, or overall wellbeing, this is valuable fear. Consider how these steps can be positively applied to the betterment of your daily life. Break each action into its tiniest achievable steps — with no effort too small as long as you’re moving forward. Construct a plan for following these steps with scheduled times and deadlines.
The following are a few examples of how to possibly leverage useful fear to help resolve a fearful state.
- If a bodily symptom is fearfully weighing on your mind, an executable action is to present your concern to a doctor. If this action feels daunting, break the activity into smaller parts. Perhaps, start by sending a message to the doctor through email or your health care provider’s online portal. Maybe even start as small as scheduling a time to make an appointment with a deadline for the completion of this action. If even this feels like too much, perhaps your first step is looking at yourself in the mirror and saying out loud, “tomorrow, I’m going to call my doctor’s office.” Again, no step is too small if it means moving forward from your present fearful state.
- If you’re fearfully concerned about the future of your job, whether due to your performance or the support of your employer, an executable action would be to make a list of actionable items you can take in case your fears are founded. If the fear is performance-based, identify your weaknesses as an employee and develop ways to strengthen them — even little by little. Asking colleagues, even superiors, for constructive criticism can help in this matter and express your dedication to your duties and role. If your fear is with your employer’s support, you can either bring these fears to your employer to quell or confirm them. If you don’t feel comfortable with the potential confrontation, consider taking tactful steps toward securing employment elsewhere.
- Suppose you’re fearful about the deterioration of a relationship. In that case, an executable action may be to identify why you feel this way and what actions you can take to nurture or remedy said relationship. If, upon closer analysis, the relationship does not seem salvageable, begin devising steps to end the relationship on agreeable terms.
Quelling Pernicious Anxiety
The sinking feeling in your gut and increased heart rate are helpful biological responses to approaching the edge of a dizzyingly high cliff. Such sensations are your mind’s signal to your body to be fearfully conscious of impending danger. However, the same sensations while simply lying in bed can be immensely hazardous to your mental and physical health. These are not leverageable sensations but rather potentially debilitating ruminations.
As previously discussed, properly identifying fear versus anxiety is a practical means of quelling either. When fear is appropriately identified, actionable steps can be executed to leverage and squelch such sensations.
But once anxiety is identified, then what?
Once anxiety is correctly identified as such—as a senseless nuisance—we can begin to leverage the lack of teeth in these ruminations — aka no discernable executables — to shift our minds to efforts worthy of our attention. We do this by pivoting our thought process from anxiety to the raw perception of the present moment.
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
― Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching
Mindset Shift 4: Simply sensing the present is your oasis from pernicious anxiety.
Upon realizing that a particular mental and emotional sensation is harmful anxiety rather than helpful fear, there is a place we can go to manage such disturbing thoughts—the present moment.
In the present, there is no fear or worry—there is only the moment itself. At this moment, all that need exist for us is the space we occupy and our body’s involuntary biological function.
- Our heart beats in our chest, sending blood throughout our body.
- Our skin forwards data about the temperature of the airflow of the space.
- Our eyes perceive the shapes of objects and the flow of light around us.
- Our nostrils detect the coolness of inhaled air and the warmth of exhaled air.
None of these sensations of the present moment require thoughts of the past or future. In fact, they can only be perceived clearly once we’ve shelved non-present thinking.
We can access the escape hatch from anxiety through any of our sense perceptions of the present moment. Tapping into the present perception of our bodies and surroundings rather than our mindless ruminations is immensely useful whenever anxious ruminations seek to creep into our thought process. A constructive way to do this is with a method that I’ll call the Monitor Technique for the sake of this piece.
The Monitor Technique
Unlike a full camera or audio recorder, a monitor—whether a camera’s viewfinder screen monitor, a musician’s stage monitor speaker, or even a medical heart monitor—has the singular job of sharing what exists in real-time. It cannot store sights or sounds. It cannot recall past moments. It cannot process data. Even though it is called a “monitor,” it is usually a secondary computer system or a user that is actually doing the monitoring. In this sense, it should be called an “allows-you-to-monitor.” But for the most part, monitors are nothing more than vehicles for capturing present data.
When you have become more acquainted with the mental and physical sensation of anxiety, instead of attempting to process your way out of such an episode, become a monitor of your present surroundings. Do not attempt to consider how any of these make you feel. Rather, simply observe them as objectively as possible. This is quite literally what many mean when they use the expression, “stop and smell the roses.”
Here are a few monitoring techniques that have worked for me:
- Observe the shapes, slopes, angles, and colors of objects in your vicinity. The arm of a chair or couch. The rise of a window sill. The angles in the edges of the leaves on trees. The sunlight against the backside of a curtain.
- Close your eyes and allow your ears to absorb the mosaic soundscape around you. There is always sound — from birds chirping to air vents, the whirl of distant lawnmowers, airplanes, cars on a nearby highway, a humming refrigerator, a computer fan, and beyond. You can either let all of the sounds swirl together as one at the front of your attention or isolate one sound to savor.
- Sit with your eyes closed and focus on the raw sensations of your breath. Feel the cool and warm air passing through your nose, the rise and fall of your chest, or the space between breaths.
- Sit with your eyes closed and simply experience the sensation of the surrounding air on your skin. If the air is moving, notice its direction, intensity, and texture. Even with eyes closed, attempt to feel the shape of the space.
While practicing the Monitor Technique, your anxieties will likely attempt to breach the doors of your focus. Your first impulse will be to fight them, but this too is a mindless reaction. When this happens, simply observe the anxiety itself as its own entity, mindfully note its existence, and then return to practicing the observation of the present moment via the Monitor Technique.
Choosing Your Shovel
A fearful mindset tends to result in reaching for one of two shovels.
The first shovel of pernicious anxiety resulting in aimless rumination is sharp and only capable of digging downward—creating ruts and holes in which to hide. Though seeming like a helpful refuge, the occupant of these ruts or holes will soon find themselves unable to climb out.
The second shovel of useful fear is broad, better able to dig oneself out from psychological and even physical harm. Though it is a heavier shovel to wield, the more efficiently it is utilized, the sooner it can be stowed until needed again.
Distinguishing fear from anxiety is not a life hack — it is a skill that requires perpetual sharpening. Honing of the perception of our mental state is aided by regularly “checking in” with ourselves in ways that pull the emergency brake on rumination and align our awareness with the present. As we sharpen this tool of discernment, we must also remain mindful of which shovel we choose to sharpen — that of useful fear or useless anxiety.