In 2015 I got diagnosed with a chronic panic disorder, which I apparently had suffered from for 20 years.
6 months later, I was completely healed, without ever taking medication. 8 years later, one of the things I receive the most praise for is my ability to remain calm in all kinds of circumstances.
That whole journey taught me a lot about the nature of fear, which I never shared on this blog before. So it’s about time I do 😉
If you ever experience forms of fear, panic or anxiety, here’s what this post will offer you:
- A concise version of my story
- How I healed from a life-long panic disorder in 6 months
- My top 10 techniques you can use to keep anxiety & fear in check
- Common misconceptions about fear
- How I learned to master fear and use it to my advantage
- How I found love in the heart of fear
(P.S. If you are actually suffering from a panic or anxiety disorder yourself, please note that I am not a doctor and none of this is medical advice. I am merely sharing what worked for me. Do consult with your doctor, and feel free to share the tools from this post with them.)
Shocking News: Chronic Anxiety Can Feel Like Calm
It happened on a random day when I hadn’t slept. (Fairly normal for me. I had suffered from long bouts of sleeplessness all my life.). For some reason, my body felt unusual. As the day went on, my heart started pounding faster and harder in my chest. I felt more dizzy every minute. And I started to feel claustrophobic in my own body.
I had no idea what a heart attack felt like but I was worrying I might have one. So I raced to the doctor’s office.
As I sat in the waiting room, I kept hearing a voice in my head: “This is a bad idea, you shouldn’t have come here, you need to escape this room”. Every second felt like an eternity, and every tick of the clock hit my dizzy head like a hammer. For some reason the emptiness of the white walls was too much for my mind too handle. There was no distraction in this room. All I could feel was my heart and the ticking of the clock, both sounding like they could explode at any point.
When I met the doctor and ran some tests, I got the news: “Your heart is in perfectly good health.”
“But you are experiencing a panic attack. In fact, you have been experiencing a panic attack your whole life. This moment is just more severe than usual.”
This message confused me a lot. How was this possible? I rarely experienced fear.
Turns out it’s actually possible to be scared to death and not know it. How?
1. Emotional Relativity
We only notice emotions when they differ from our baseline.
You can compare this to eating food outside your diet. People who eat spicy food all day, will think that certain levels of spice “aren’t spicy at all”. While for someone whose diet goes easy on the spices, that same amount may already be too much for them.
Emotions are the same:
We all know at least one person who is walking around grumpy all the time but says they’re not. Why do they look grumpy to us and not to themselves? Because grumpy is their “neutral”. They only feel like they’re grumpy when they’re getting hit with that good old extra spicy grump.
That means if you are in an extreme state of anxiety all the time, you’ll just think you’re feeling “neutral”. (Until you’re getting that extra spicy panic attack, like in my story.)
(On a more motivating sidenote: These baselines can shift and it’s a great experience. Many times in life I’ve realized that what I previously thought of as “maximum happiness” is now just “medium happiness”. Because my baseline has shifted upward so much.)
Dissociation is a psychological defense mechanism that involves a disconnection from one’s thoughts, feelings, identity, or consciousness as a way to cope with overwhelming or traumatic experiences.
It can manifest in various ways, from feeling detached from your body or surroundings, to experiencing memory gaps or feeling like you’re observing yourself from a distance.
Intense amount of fear and anxiety can lead to a constant state of detachment and depersonalization. If that’s the case, you won’t be conscious of feeling much anxiety at all.
It Might Get Worse Before It Gets Better
Meditation often gets mentioned as a great tool for finding inner peace, and it is. Yet when I first started a meditation practice, it triggered a severe episode of anxiety. How is that possible?
Let’s rewind a little bit.
The doctor told me to find 3 specialists: A psychiatrist, a psychologist and a breathing therapist.
During my first visit with the psychiatrist, he prescribed me sleeping pills, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.
I asked “What if I don’t want to take any pills?” and the response was “Then you won’t see me again.”
I didn’t see that man again.
My gut told me that taking the pills would do more harm than good. (This is not medical advice. Don’t listen to my gut, listen to your own 😉 )
Instead, I decided to dedicate most of my waking hours to facing my fears. And since one of the symptoms of my panic disorder was insomnia, I had a lot of waking hours to use for that.
Besides working with the other 2 therapists, I would read every book about fear I could find. I’d practice all the advice in it, keep what works and throw away what doesn’t.
The plan was that instead of fear being my master, I’d become a master of fear by studying it 24/7. But to do so, I’d have to fully face it…
Facing it seemed like the only way out. If a pill stopped me from feeling anxious…what’s the difference between that and dissociation?
There was something I was anxious about. And I wanted to find what it was, not create a chemical mechanism for denial.
Meditation was one of the hundreds of things I tried.
For my first session, I set a 30 seconds timer. 30 seconds of closing my eyes and observing my breathing. I couldn’t do it without getting the sense that someone was going to attack me from behind. No wonder I rarely slept!
I gradually increased the length of my sessions. Once I successfully closed my eyes for 30 seconds, I would try the next one for 40 seconds, then 50 sec, and so on..
One day, when I had reached a timer of 5 minutes, something happened: I actually felt calm. I felt a sense of calm that I had never felt before in my life. It felt amazing…for 10 seconds. Then I noticed a thought in my mind:
“Holy cow! Is this how normal people feel?”
“What is wrong with me that I never feel this way ever?”
And boom, I spiraled back into massive anxiety.
This doesn’t mean meditation is bad. I still do it daily, and it has changed my life for the better.
The reason it “triggered” anxiety, is something which is part of the process of facing your fears:
The opposite of fear is feeling completely calm and safe.
So naturally, when we learn to lower your fear, we will become calmer.
When we become calmer (less fearful), we increase our capacity to feel and to pay attention to what’s going on inside us.
With this increased capacity, we become more aware of any fears that already exist in us.
This is necessary. Because awareness is the first step. Without knowing our fears, we can never work with them or integrate them in a healthy way.
Becoming more aware of your fears, for a moment, means that fear becomes much more present in your reality.
This is true whether we are talking about full blown panic attacks, or just mild fears.
So know that when working with fear, this may be part of the process.
(Side note: In western culture, it is extremely common to detach from our fears. Our entire society is structured so that we won’t be reminded of death or violence often, even though it’s all around us. And we (especially men) are taught that the ideal person is fearless and bold at all times.
Therefore, most of us have been avoiding our fears through natural or unnatural coping mechanisms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean that increase awareness may cause some fears to surface which you never realized you had. )
If you’re dealing with more serious fears (related to trauma) or are worried that they could overwhelm you, then it’s best to find a therapist who can support you when they come up. (I actually recommend therapy for anybody in any situation. It’s like going to the gym, but for your psyche. I ‘m feeling perfectly happy right now and I still sometimes have therapy session. Once you’ve found a good match with a therapist, they are never without benefits.)
Anyway, let’s get to the fun part, shall we? 😉
The Most Effective Tools for Treating My Anxiety
Below are the tools that made the biggest impact when it came to reversing my panic disorder fast. I’ve since used these same tools for many other people who were dealing with acute fear or anxiety. The results were similar. So the odds are quite high that some of these may be effective for you as well.
1. The Physiology of Fear: Breathing
One of the characteristics of a fear state is that breathing will be fast and shallow (to prepare you for fight or flight). Whereas in a relaxed state, breathing will be slow and deep.
When you’re feeling fearful, it can be incredibly helpful to consciously reverse this breathing pattern.
How to do it:
- Lay down with one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- For a couple of minutes, simply be aware of the tempo of your breath (by feeling your hands rise).
- Count the seconds of your inhalations and exhalations without forcing anything.
- Continue counting your inhalations, but make a conscious effort to have each exhale last twice as long as the inhale that came before it.
- Keep doing this even if it feels unnatural (initially, sometimes you may feel resistance our additional fear in the process), until your body has adapted to this new rhythm.
This takes care of moving from fast to slow.
In terms of moving from shallow to deep, pay attention to your hands. If only the hand on your chest is rising, your breathing is shallow. To deepen it, slow down your inhale a little bit and make a conscious attempt to breathe into your belly.
(If you want a guided session of this process, feel free to DM me on Instagram.)
2. The Physiology of Fear: Tension & Activation
Another aspect of the fear state is that your muscles will have a mild tension. This is great when faced with danger. But if we’re dealing with a sense of “background worry” in your life, it means that you can’t really relax.
One way to help relax your mind and reduce fear is to consciously relax your body. But this is easier said than done. If you’ve ever told your body (or somebody) to “just relax”, you probably know that the effect is usually the opposite.
Yet there are moments in life when the body naturally relaxes:
- After a long physical workday
- After an intense workout
- After certain activities which are only for adults and shouldn’t be mentioned
And what do all these have in common?
A build up of tension, followed by a release response.
To mimic this response, simply lay down again. Now go through each muscle in your body, tense it up as long and hard as you can (at least 15 seconds), then let go.
- Pushing your heels into the mattress
- Curling your toes
- Tightening your quads
- Tightening your butt
- Curling your biceps
- Tightening your triceps
- Making a fist
- Shrugging your shoulders
- Tightening your face
- Pushing the back of your head into the mattress
Then repeat for a final time, tensing every muscle in your entire body at once.
This works amazing in tandem with the breathing exercise from above.
3. Creating Safety and Familiarity
One psychological aspect of fear is the sense that something (unknown) might happen which we are not equipped to handle.
The opposite of that is: Knowing exactly what will happen, and knowing that it’s something which feels good or nourishing to us.
Great things to do when you are feeling fearful, are things that create such a situation:
- Being with a friend you know and trust through and through (humans are great at recalibrating each other’s nervous system)
- Eating your favorite food. Especially warm, comforting foods.
- Taking a hot shower and pampering yourself
- Wearing warm, cosy clothes
- Watching a movie or series you already know and like
- Sitting in a spot in the room where you have a clear view of each possible entrance
- Being a house you have fond memories of
Fear and excitement are very similar emotions. In fact, all three of the above are true about excitement as well.
- Excitement leads to shallow and fast breathing
- Excitement leads to tension and activation
- Excitement has an aspect of danger and the unknown
Yet, they are not the same. And a lot of times, the difference is either our thoughts about the situation we’re in, or how we label the feeling we are having.
Get good at telling the difference and you’ll cut your time being “afraid” in half.
In cases where there’s no real danger (as in public speaking for example), you might even re-frame your fear altogether and label it as excitement. You may find that that alone changes your experience of it.
This is an especially important distinction to learn. Because many things which we are excited about, are things we secretly want to experience (jumping out of an air plane, trying cannabi… uh, cigarettes!, inviting your friends to play strip poker). If we think we’re scared of these things, we’ll end up avoiding them. While in reality, we desperately crave the adventure they bring!
5. Learning the Difference Between Old and New Fear
One time, I camped in the wild with 2 friends. In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of a huge boar grunting right above my face. I immediately felt my body shoot into a freeze response. Once the boar left, the fear left too.
That is new fear. You may feel it when you’re alone with someone and they say something creepy. Or when you watch someone you love stand dangerously close to a fire.
Another time, I had an acquaintance whose messages I would never open. Whenever his name showed up, I’d be afraid and wait for days to read them. Once I did, they were usually completely normal messages. And I’d feel guilty for avoiding them.
That is old fear: This guy used to have a pattern of texting me angrily in the middle of the night. He never did that any more, yet I was still trying to avoid it.
Old fear is what you feel when you show up scared in a new group, even though these specific people have never done anything threatening. Or when you don’t want to watch TV shows anymore because you watched Lost and Game of Thrones, which didn’t end well.
New fear is usually appropriate to the situation. Old fear is appropriate for the old situation, but not necessarily for the new one.
People often say old fear is bad, but I disagree. If you burned yourself once, it’s appropriate to be afraid of fire.
The thing with old fear is that we should just be a little more sceptical of it.
Are you scared of this person because something about their behavior is actually shady?
Or just because they dress in the same way as someone who hurt you (or have the same gender/skin color/subculture)?
6. Avoiding Stimulants
Stimulants (like caffeine, nicotine and your friendly neighborhood crystal meth) put your body in a similar physiological state is fear. Which is why they improve performance in the short-term. Fear can also do that for you (as in the fight or flight response).
But if you’re currently trying to rein in the amount of fear in your life, it’s best not to ingest things that put your body in such a state.
7. Avoiding Avoiding
(Wait, what? You just said…)
Fear almost always goes hand in hand with avoidance mechanisms.
If we’re afraid of something, we’ll find ways to exclude this from reality.
In my case, quitting alcohol was an important catalyst from bringing more awareness to my fears.
But avoidance behaviors can have many forms, and aren’t always addictions.
For example, when I was anxious I used to lie to myself and others. By creating a fake reality, I wouldn’t have to face the real one.
For other people, avoidance may look like watching television, scrolling social media or eating junk food.
It could be a habit of working too much, or avoiding work altogether.
The avoidance itself is a form of fear in disguise. As long as the avoidance pattern is active, we won’t be able to discover what’s underneath.
Sometimes avoidance is hard to spot. So the easiest way to stop yourself from doing it is:
- Become more austere. (As long as you’re working with fear, don’t binge on stuff.)
- Create space for silence with no distractions. (This is where meditation could come in handy.)
- Whenever you crave or desire something, evaluate the motivation. (Do you want sex because the person in front of you inspires you to? Or did the feeling originate “randomly”? Are you actually hungry, or do you just want food really bad?)
8. How to Identify Your Anxiety Triggers
Depending on where your emotional baseline is, anxiety may enter your awareness only at a point when it’s unclear what initially trigger it.
For it to reach that point, the feeling had to first spiral high enough.
And this spiral happens in a predictable sequence.
- Thoughts (about the event)
- Feeling (created by the interpretation of the event)
- Behavior (result of the feeling)
- Impact (of the behavior, which can be seen as another event).
To trace back your trigger, ask yourself:
- Where in these 5 steps am I now? (Am I experiencing a behavior, feeling, thought or event?)
- What came right before that? (What was the thought before my feeling, or the event before my thought…)
- And what came right before that?
Keep repeating the tracing backward of cycles until you reach a point where you don’t remember.
The more you do this, the more you’ll train the skill of retracing it further and further back.
After a while, you’ll see clear patterns in your triggers. Which you can then unravel with the help of a therapist.
9. Exposure Therapy
Remember the story of how I initially was too scared to meditate?
Instead of the recommended “15 minutes a day”, I started with 30 seconds. A super low dose. And I slowly built it up.
You can do this with anything you’re afraid of.
For example, I used to be afraid of starting conversations with strangers. So to get over that, I would give myself mini missions:
- Today, I’ll look 5 strangers in the eye
- Once achieved, my next mission is the same but with a smile.
- Now the same, but I’ll also say hi.
- Next week, I’ll say hi to 50 strangers.
- Tonight, I’ll ask one stranger how they’re doing, listen to them, say “thanks for sharing!” and leave.
Eventually this turned into going out every single day and turning strangers into friends and lovers. Some of them are still in my life today!
You can apply this to your own fears by taking something you’re afraid of, and asking:
What would this look like, divided by 100?
Then expose yourself to 1% of that fear.
Do it as many times as you need, until you’re comfortable enough to try 5% of it. Then 10%, and so on.
10. Feeling Your Feet
When we are anxious, we’re often overwhelmed by thoughts and neglect to feel our bodies.
The simple act of putting your conscious attention on your feet, and the contact of your feet with whatever surface is touching them can already lower your fearfulness a lot.
Adding more walking to your life, or becoming more conscious of your body, can increase your level of calm in general.
Misconceptions About Fear
Courage Is Not the Opposite of Fear
It’s often said that being courageous is the opposite of being afraid. But if you weren’t afraid, why would you still have to be courageous? Without anything scary to face, there’s no need for courage at all.
Courage is simply the decision to accept that you feel afraid, but to move forward in spite of that feeling.
Exposure therapy is the process through which courage is built.
Fear Is Not the Opposite of Love
A lot of new-age literature presents fear as the opposite of love. And I myself believed it to be that way up until a few years ago.
It’s an understandable perspective. Because fear is an energy that feels “contractive” in your body, while love feels “expansive”.
But this is just in terms of physical sensation. Because fear is actually an expansive energy as well:
It greatly expands your awareness and the amount of possibilities available to you.
It’s a powerful primal force which we can tap into to improve our lives.
Which is what the final sections of this article will be dedicated to.
Fearlessness Is Usually Just an Illusion
If we have to believe the relentless advice on social media, we should all be “conquering”, “fixing” and “getting rid” of fear.
If you’ve ever tried that, you might already know it’s not as simple as it sounds.
In fact, for many, this constant pressure to be “fearless” can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy, making fear even more challenging to overcome.
But here’s a little secret…We ALL experience fear. It’s one of the fundamental human emotions…it’s not disappearing any time soon.
In reality, the idea of wanting to be “fearless” often stems from a profound fear of fear itself.
When we look at other people who seem fearless to us, the truth is usually this:
A. They are courageous.
B. They are simply not afraid of the things we are. But I guarantee you, they experience fear in their lives.
Yes, we can improve our relationship with fear and reduce the amount of fear we feel. After all, that’s what this blog post about. But being fearless is a delusional aspiration.
So let’s dive into what to do instead…
The Power of Fear: Learning to Calibrate
Most of the fear I experienced when I was still suffering from the panic disorder was “old fear”: Layers upon layers of trauma responses that had made me hypervigilant.
The reason I couldn’t sleep was that underneath all the constant philosophizing in my head, my brain was secretly scanning the room for threats.
When I arrived at a party, I could hear everyone’s conversation at the same time. Because fear was perking up my ears to look for hints of danger, betrayal, signs that the group might plan to turn against me.
When I received a text, I analyzed each word a million times. Just to be sure that the meaning of the message was genuine.
These are inappropriate levels of fear. My bedroom was safe. The parties were filled with people who loved me. And when someone asks “What’s up?”, it doesn’t mean they’re planning an ambush.
This hypervigilance was absolutely unnecessary. But vigilance itself is a helpful quality.
Someone without vigilance might get robbed, lose their kids in busy places, or slip on a banana peel and die.
So instead of getting rid of these vigilant qualities, I attempted to give them a place in my experience that is beneficial to me..
I am no longer an anxious person. In fact, I’m one of the calmest people I’ve met.
Yet, I have the power to spot opportunities for danger that might seem far-fetched to others. Which helps me adjust my environment to the benefit of everyone’s safety. I can spot an opportunity for disaster where no one else could think of it. Because I’ve seen so many ways in which it can strike.
When I’m in a room with lots of people, I can easily spot who needs care. Or where a fight might break out 10 minutes from now (which helps me direct people away from it).
Where my hypervigilance used to stop me from sleeping, I now sleep like a baby. I’m notoriously hard to wake up. But if there’s an unusual noise at the front door, my body leaps out of bed in seconds to check it out, then goes right back to sleep.
Where I used to overanalyze communications, I now have a deep understanding of them at many levels. While simultaneously not taking them too seriously.
In other words: I never banished these fears from my life at all. Like I said before, trying to have “no fear” is just adding more fear to your fear.
Instead, I accepted my existing fears and learned to calibrate them to a level that is useful for me, but doesn’t stop me from keeping my cool.
Similarly, my fear of inadequacy used to be a very painful thing to feel. And it would sometimes be challenging in relationships. But now I’ve learned how to keep just enough of it, to drive constant self-improvement, without leading to self-judgment or challenging my confidence anymore.
What if you were relieved from the burden of having to “get rid of your fears”?
What if instead, you could just keep them and turn them into superpowers?
If you are socially anxious, you don’t want your fear to affect you so much that you’re scared of speaking.
But having just the right amount of that fear can make you a great listener and really good at being considerate in conversations.
If you’re scared of being alone, you don’t want to feel it to the degree that you cling on to people and chase them away.
But a healthy level of that can make you really good at making friends and maintaining relationships with them.
Which superpowers are hidden inside your fears?
And what it look like to calibrate your fear just the way you like it?
Learning to calibrate fear in this way is a process of feeling it in its full intensity, gaining control over it, and then consciously learning to play with the levels.
I do not recommend learning to calibrate fear by yourself. But if you do want to learn it, simply DM the word “fear” to me on Instagram and I’ll gladly guide you.
How I Found Love In The Heart of Fear
In case you hadn’t noticed, yes, this is the second post in the “Flavors of Love” series I’m writing.
The way I see fear as a form of love is closely related to everything I just shared:
Fear gives you superpowers.
Fear alerts us of potential threats to ourselves or something we love. It heightens our awareness and increases our possibilities for helping what we love survive.
Instant fear makes you capable of running, or fighting, or playing dead.
Creeping “anxiety” makes you capable of strategising, anticipating, and coming up with unusual solutions for potential worst-case scenarios. This too, is a form of love for yourself.
What if you’d stop seeing fear as a thing to “get rid of” and instead, learn to open up to all the love and power it can give you?
I’ll end this article with a list of things fear can help you with… And this list is by no means complete. It just serves to get your juices flowing:
- To be on time
- To double check if a decision really aligns with you
- To shock yourself awake and alert (like stimulants would)
- To lay still and do nothing (where action might be harmful)
- To stop yourself from walking in that poop on the sidewalk
- To keep your finances with in budget
- To protect your loved ones from danger
- To not go to dangerous neighborhoods if you don’t have to be there
- To fix little things before they escalate into big things
- To meet a deadline
- To spot mistakes in your own work
- To walk around with breakable stuff and not drop it
- To pay attention to many things at the same time
- To shift gears when you’re not getting results
- To craft brilliant plans and strategies
- To notice if something is off
- To pinpoint the awkward elephant in the room
- To invest your resources wisely (LIKELY)
- To increase your awareness when leading or facilitating
- To pay attention to detail
- To continue nourishing your friendships and relationships
Your turn now… can you think of 10 more ways in which fear can positively change your life?