Imagine you’re in an elevator mentally running through your list of to do’s for the day. Suddenly, the elevator stops between floors. The lights go dark and the alarm begins to sound. What most people will likely experience is an element of fear or panic.
Fear is the body’s natural response to anything that is perceived as a threat, either physical or emotional. Fear is something each of us has experienced, and is responsible for keeping us safe. For many of us though, fear can overstep its bounds and run more of our lives than we wish. We may develop unhelpful behaviors in response to our fear. If left untreated, fear can begin to affect our health and relationships.
What if we were to learn to be the master of our fear, allowing it to serve us rather than rule us? Taking back control is best done counterintuitively: We need to release control. Mindfulness is a beautiful approach to addressing our fear, panic and anxiety. This article borrows from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a model of mindfulness that is proven to help with fear (Stahl & Millstine, 2013).
What Are Fear, Panic & Anxiety?
Though fear and panic seem to be synonymous, it is important to understand the difference. According to mindfulness expert Bob Stahl, when one perceives danger, fear “serves to activate your ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response in order to help you survive”. This manifests as rapid breathing, elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Panic is our body’s response to fear. “Panic affects your body, emotions, and thoughts in extreme ways that can feel like a violent eruption.” Extreme or chronic panic leads to feelings of terror, worry, anger, shame, inadequacy and embarrassment – and can even culminate to the feeling of going crazy or dying.
Anxiety, a very close cousin of fear and panic, is prolonged worry about threats that might be in the future. When left unsupervised, all three intermingle and can create a system of dis-ease for us.
The Unfortunate Effects
Fear and panic both affect the brain and body in ways that can be detrimental.
[Did that last sentence cause a little fear and panic? If you’re reading this and feel alarmed, pause from reading and pay attention to your emotion. Breathe, slowly and deeply, through the emotion for as long as you need, and then return to reading. This is a simple example of a grounding exercise.]
When we are in a state of fear or panic, our neurological pathways change in order to respond quickly for our benefit. According to the Center for Spirituality and Healing, chronic fear can eventually weaken our immune system, cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems and decreased fertility. In order to safeguard our health, it is wise that we become effective tamers of fear and panic. But how?
What Can We Do?
Calm Our Body
If fear and panic bring our body into a state of distress, our goal is to bring ourselves back to a state of calm and peace. MBSR highlights two main techniques to calming our body. First is through mindful breathing, which can be done anywhere and at any time. A second, more in-depth tool is to practice a body scan. This enables us to pay mindful attention to our body and can teach us to manage internal feelings, including fear and panic.
Calm Our Emotion
First, mindfulness asks that we acknowledge our feelings rather than avoid them. Research shows that naming our feelings actually calms our brain. Once we’ve named them, we are asked not to judge them but rather to simply allow them to run their course. Learning to ride the waves of any presenting emotion is central to mindfulness. This means sitting in the discomfort of our emotion rather than trying to fix or change it. The next time fear or panic shows up, practice naming and allowing the feeling to be. Remind yourself: feelings are temporary, they will pass.
Calm Our Thoughts
As troubling thoughts arise, we can first remind ourselves: thoughts are just thoughts, and are not necessarily true. As we continue to pay mindful attention to the thoughts that cause us fear or panic, MBSR suggests we practice: “Pause, observe/experience, allow”. First pause what we are doing, rather than pushing through and ignoring our fear. Then, we can mindfully observe and experience the effect of our thoughts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can allow this experience to run its course rather than fight it off.
Mindfulness teaches us to acknowledge life’s constant unpredictability. The beauty of incorporating mindfulness into our response to fear is in recognizing that fear is a visitor that will be popping in on us from time to time. If we cannot control that visitor, our hopeful solution can be to change our relationship to it – through mindfulness. So keep breathing and riding the waves with peace in your heart.
Good luck in the journey!
Lesley Anne Mendonça
M.A., LMFT-Associate, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Dr. Amy Fuller, LMFT-S, LPC-S
Stahl, B. & Millstine, W. (2013). Calming the rush of panic: A mindfulness-based stress reduction guide to freeing yourself from panic attacks and living a vital life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.