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.
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:
- In general, a sensation's intensity starts low, peaks, and ebbs again, like a wave. The tricky part is not flinching away from the peak—when you flinch and turn away during the peak, the experience intensifies. If you can maintain investigation until the ebb, you can "ride" the ebb down toward equanimity.
- Once you have noticed that sensations naturally ebb after the peak, including fear, you will grow much more confident in dealing with them. You will know you can survive the peak and everything after that is no big deal.
- To get close to the peak of a sensation then, it is useful to notice that by the time you are aware of a sensation, it has already passed. If you can view experience in this way and identify as this awareness, you will find there is nothing threatening about any sensation. By the time you notice it, it's already gone—of course it can't harm you. If this is unnatural or confusing, try starting by noticing in as much detail as possible how, in each moment, whatever sensation you are experiencing is different than the last.
- Labelling an emotion reduces reactivity. Try noting.
- Ultimately, the solidity of fear and panic is an illusion. This solidity is maintained by a process of "proliferation," the interplay between physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions, along with a process of elaboration by the discriminating, thinking mind. Cleanly distinguishing and noticing how this process occurs will interrupt this process.
- In general, investigating and debunking solidity is a powerful technique for undermining the creation of suffering. I have described how this process unfolds for an idealized meditator studying the breath here. You may recognize yourself in that or get some ideas.
- Finally, throughout the knowledges of suffering, the most important thing is to pay attention to what is happening. These experiences happen because your mind is working through something. By being kind to yourself and adopting a stance of "maybe there is something to learn here," you will suck the marrow from these experiences as quickly as possible and move on.
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.