One of the things I have had to accept about myself as I have grown older is that I am a worrier. I have never been and probably never will be one of those people who take a lazily stoic attitude to life, confronting every problem with a shrug of the shoulders and another swig of beer.
But accepting this aspect of my personality has the benefit of giving me some insight into what it is to worry. To worry is to project oneself forward and imagine the potential negative outcomes of a situation, fixating on hypothetical outcomes, rather than focusing on the situation as it is now. One of the best ways to cope with this tendency is to develop the ability to laugh at oneself. This provides a natural check against overly obsessive thinking and facilitates the self-awareness to know when your thinking is getting just plain silly, and then to laugh at it rather than perpetuating obsessive thinking.
What can also help is to reflect on what fear is. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reflection that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” has been so criminally over-quoted that for a long time I didn’t give it much thought. But when you unpack it, you can start to appreciate its wisdom. Think of the last time you had an intimidating event approaching: a high pressure job interview, an exam, a medical procedure or anything of that nature. One thing to notice is that often the period of fear preceding the event is much more unpleasant than the event itself. “Fear itself” does not have any actual content independent of the event that it is anticipating – it is essentially the creation of additional unnecessary unpleasantness.
It is in this way that fear becomes crippling and self-perpetuating. A number of years ago I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. Once you experience your first panic attack, it is not necessarily what triggered the first attack that you dread but the sensation of panic. Thereafter, it is the anticipation of having another panic attack which becomes the trigger. Having spoken to others who have experienced the same or similar problems, I now know that this is a very common phenomenon.
Fear, as an emotion, is often nothing more than a conduit for more fear. It is virulent. It multiplies and divides, eventually overwhelming your psyche if it is allowed to. Unfortunately, fear has survival value in evolutionary terms and is thus ineradicable in us.
But it can be conquered. The opposite of fear is acceptance, even to the extent of accepting that you are afraid and that it’s okay to be.
If you feel afraid, it is worth asking yourself, what are you really afraid of?