A Few Simple Tools for Working with Obsessive Fear

Fearful girl peeking through her fingers.
Fearful girl peeking through her fingers.

There are times in life when intrusive, "catastrophizing" thoughts latch hold of us, clogging and obstructing the mind with swarming, buzzing thoughts, leaving us distracted, tormented, assailed by repetitious worries. The sensory richness of the present moment can be overwhelmed by the inner disaster films, leaving reality muted.

These dire visitors--often activated by present day events that evoke early childhood relational experiences that involved interpersonal rejection, abandonment, neglect, shaming or abuse--can easily bait and hook us: when its hysterical, its historical, as they say. If the root states of fear and distress that lie beneath obsessive worry are very old--for example, a current fear of rejection or financial vulnerability that conjures up childhood traumas, we can regress into feelings of impending annihilation.

The emotional mind is often entirely aware of our present resources; we revert to a childlike states of deficiency, a felt sense of overwhelm and lack of agency in the world. As the fear mounts, the messages can take on a 'the world is going to end' sense of urgency; the mind can play all kinds of perceptual tricks that make it all to easy to ignore our present resources, which is, of course, the only place of true safety and utility. For example, attempts to remind ourselves that people care about us, that we've amassed skills and resources, will be ignored by anxiety.

Of course, the power of fear is generally proportional to the degree of repression it has faced over the years; hundreds of clients I've worked with in one-on-one capacity evince the fact that the less time we spend opening to and holding our fear, confusion, anger and sadness, the greater the strength it will carry when activated: repressed emotions tend to be the most poorly regulated.

In short, when we're unable to cope and/or process an emotion, such as fear or anger, the energy becomes trapped, both somatically and as unconscious memories. The body changes and we shift away from a state of balance between internal environment and external settings, into a traumatic state characterized by hypervigilance or dissociative numbing.

The first practice is--as bizarre or perhaps even unfathomable as it sounds--to greet each iteration of fear, whether in auditory or visual thought or physical panic. The resistance we add to entirely natural emotional activations only fuel the force with which they arise. Remember, fear believes it carries messages essential to our survival; no matter how extreme or unlikely the worry, it believes annihilation could occur if we fail to pay heed. So the initial strategy is to end the war with fear, to create a 'truce' where it is noted then felt in the body (allowing the thoughts to run in the background, while attention stays on physical sensations).

When we find the mind latching onto these narratives, images or moods, and we can't reassure, reason with or let go, sometimes the only solution is to give up the battle and actually write down what our fears are trying to tell us. If we've tried to replace the fears with reflections of gratitude and meet little success, the next step is to write--or type--out whatever the dread and foreboding wants us to know. In such an exercise its essential to not edit or resist, but give full permission to the fear, allowing it to express every last negative prediction in its article. Indeed, when the fear narratives begin to dry out, ask them: "And then what?"

Once we've finished writing it out, take a series of long, smooth rewarding breaths, relax the body, move to a different location to flood the mind with new sensations and impressions.

Its worthwhile to give our fears, cravings and depressions names to greet them with each time they arise: the Buddha called his inner demons, his desire to quit the path, "Mara." I've greeted my demons with many names over the years, but I never give my fears negative or condescending titles; the point of greeting each visitor is to avoid identifying or believing fear, anger, sadness, etc to be ours; in naming these impulses we give them permission to arise without resistance or clinging.

If, after we've journaled, a fear returns with some energy in persistence, remind it that we've given it time to vent, now its our turn to enjoy life for a little while, until our next journal session.

After a few days pass its worthwhile rereading our fear (or anger or sadness) writings from a fresh perspective. A little removed from the thoughts, we quickly see how unlikely or overblown most fears are in retrospect. Generally, our fears are where the exiled, wounded 'inner child' resides for, like the very young, fears believe that every new change or challenge in life will lead to abandonment and disaster. While we've grown up to be adults, our fears still view the world from the perspective of a frightened infant, seeing annihilation around every corner.

This is where Metta practice comes in handy; if we can feel the presence of this frightened inner experience--perhaps as a tightness in the abdomen, or an unsettled quality of mind--we can send it thoughts of good will: "I love you, keep going, I care about you, I'll take care of you." Eventually we learn to reparent these feelings of vulnerability. It's a lovely practice that helps us move through life with far greater inner resources.

I hope the above is of some use--metta.