Insight: Dealing With Fear

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say What was this forest savage, rough, and stern Which in the very thought renews the fear. So bitter is it, death is little more; But of the good to treat, which there I found Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

—Dante's Inferno

In fear, there is a very important and useful insight to be had: there is no such thing as an overwhelming mental object & experience. Here are some tips for moving smoothly through this:

If you bravely and diligently examine fear in the way, you will eventually strip it of its experiential "sting":

Imagine yourself like a man who comes across a poisonous snake in his path while hiking. At first, he flees from the snake, but each day he comes back a little braver, taking an extra step toward the snake. One day he gets close enough to see that there never was a snake, it was a vine all along.

Your experience is like that snake. At first you might flee from it but, as long as you pay a little attention, next time you will be braver and look closer. You will keep noting for a little longer. Once you have built up some courage this way, you should start breaking the experience down into the smallest pieces you can manage. Notice when there is a sensation in the body and when there is a thought. Pay attention to how the two feed into each other, supporting the whole thing. Try to break the bodily sensations into smaller pieces. Once you can break the experience into components, you should reflect on whether there is anything overwhelming about it. Is it a snake or a vine?

On Panic Attacks

My pet theory of panic attacks is that they work like this: you notice an unpleasant sensation in the body, like a rapid heart beat. You react to this sensation with a negative evaluation, like "my heart is pounding too fast, this is dangerous!" This in turn triggers an adrenal response from the body, which ratchets the heart rate up further. This creates a feedback loop which culminates in panic.

People who cannot comfortably notice what is going on inside become vulnerable to respond to any sensory shift either by shutting down or by going into a panic—they develop a fear of fear itself. We now know that panic symptoms are maintained largely because the individual develops a fear of the bodily sensations associated with panic attacks. The attack may be triggered by something he or she knows is irrational, but fear of the sensations keeps them escalating into a full-body emergency.

—Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score

You can interrupt this process using any technique that biases you toward mindful observation of the experience (and, thus, non-reactivity), like simple mental labelling of what is occuring in each moment, noting.


If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.