Updated: Jan 12, 2018
Todd E. Pressman, Ph.D.
The alarm rings at 5:30 and you tear yourself away from your pillow to start the day. As you splash cold water on your face, it begins again...a tidal wave of concerns and pressures about the day starts to race unbidden through your brain, filling you with an instant tension. By the time you've finished brushing your teeth, you're poised to do battle with the challenges that await.
This scenario may seem all too familiar—the cost of “doing business” with life. But it actually comes from the learned habit of fear. Most of us tolerate this and seem to adjust, but the hidden toll it takes literally saps us of our vitality, eats away at our health, and robs us of our joy. In extreme cases, it causes anxiety disorders and panic attacks. The rest of us just suffer a slow, drawn out depletion of our life energies.
This kind of fear response seems automatic: a rejected proposal, a fight with our spouse, an imagined slight, and instantly--without intention—we are on the defensive, all cylinders engaged and ready to fight or flee. But what if it were possible to interrupt this cycle and find a better way?
There is another way to deal with the circumstances of our lives that is not based on fear but on a freedom to choose our response. Here is an exercise that works quickly and powerfully to do just that. I call it “fearbusting”. Take some situation that is causing you anxiety. Let's say your boss has asked you for a private meeting and you have no idea what it's about. Your anxiety is running wild with fantasies about getting a poor evaluation or even demoted, along with a hefty cut in pay. You then spin off further fantasies of doom, assuring yourself that you're going to be canned and that there's no hope for finding another job...ever. In the time it takes to gulp down the lump in your throat, you are picturing yourself in a cardboard box on the street, homeless and devastated.
But wait! Let's do a quick rewind back to the point where you are about to walk into your boss's office. Now, to interrupt the automatic cycle of anxious thoughts, try practicing different variations on how the story might actually unfold. Make up a series of alternate outcomes of every variety and color. The more varied and colorful, the better. Really throw yourself into it and get creative. You might, for instance, picture your boss opening up to you about a personal matter because he finds you a worthy confidant. Or perhaps you see yourself walking into her office only to find her looking at you with a blank stare, having no idea why she called the meeting in the first place. It may be that the company is opening up a new division and you are being reassigned based on your expertise. You could picture yourself opening the door to the office and finding a surprise party waiting for you, acknowledging your years of hard work and service to the company. It's not about anticipating what you think might really happen; it's about realizing your mind is playing tricks on you by assuming that fear is the only possible outcome.
“But”, you ask, “what if the fear really does come true?”. Then practice visualizing alternate outcomes to that scenario. Getting canned might be just the thing you need for breaking free of the rut you've been in, starting a daring adventure, reconnecting with your kids or living more simply and in touch with what really matters to you. Whatever script you play out in your mind, get strong in the ability to think outside the rut of your fear's doom and gloom scenario. The only thing that makes us suffer is the fear of what might happen in the future; it's never what is actually happening in the present. Fear says we cannot deal with the future; but don't we always find a way of dealing with the present? So break up the thoughts about the future by visualizing different outcomes and free your mind to see what's available here and now.
There are two types of visualizations that will work especially well: 1) Those that you can really believe might happen (i.e. outcomes that make logical sense) and, more interestingly, 2) Really outlandish visualizations. The reason this latter approach is so effective is because it breaks up the hypnotic fixation of your fear. When you start imagining that your boss is going to appear in pink polka-dotted underwear and ask for your fashion opinion, it's hard to take your fear seriously!
The only possible obstacle to success with this technique is if you don't follow through long enough with it, letting your mind quickly revert back to the fear. Fear is indeed hypnotic; it wants to draw us relentlessly back to focusing only on it, assuring us that if we don't, the boogie-man will get us. But this simply reinforces the problem, so dare to break free by training your mind on the alternate stories. Stay with them long enough that it breaks up the fixation and frees your attention to move lightly on to whatever it chooses. You'll know it when you've arrived—it's a wonderful experience that brings an extraordinary relief, as you see that your fear was arbitrary and you are not trapped inside it. With this, the true source of anxiety and relief is revealed--your own mind--and you have a powerful new tool for creating a life of freedom and Joy!