“With your thoughts you create your world” said the Buddha. I did not realize the depth of truth in this statement until experiencing it first hand in my life. You have always heard people tell you to be positive. Well, the condition of anxiety and social phobia was something that had developed through years of negative reinforcement. I was negative towards myself to the point that self-bullying had become a passing subconscious feeling: “What is wrong with you?” Egypt “You are stupid” or the expectation to fail in everything. It was also towards others -thinking everyone wanted to wrong me – like I was a universal bulls eye and purpose of creation was to humiliate me. The negativity oozed out into social situations where I felt everyone was looking at and judging me negatively. This led to avoidance of social situations and reinforced the belief of negative jurisdiction by others, which eventually developed into a phobia. The extent of this phobia was severe. It was difficult to even do small tasks around another person. Everyday life was literally hell. Standing in queues to buy groceries was impossible. Even sitting at home, I would be gripped by anxiety as the mind anticipated situations it dreaded. There is no need to go into details of life as a phobic. If you are reading this I assume you have some experience or knowledge it.
Fear is like a prison where the prison cell keeps shrinking. Avoidance of situations puts restrictions on life and fear starts creeping in other situations until living a normal life becomes very difficult. It is like a python that takes your life with every breath. A change was needed – not because I had grand ideas of improving myself or becoming a better person – but because it was no longer possible to survive with this debilitating condition.
A realization came that all phobias have the same pattern. A full-blown panic attack starts when a 'mental barrier' is crossed. The panic is felt because the mind believes it is trapped and there is danger . Of course, it is natural to panic when you believe there is no escape from an impending danger. Panic is body's preparation for physical confrontation or for running away – what science calls the 'fight or flight' response. The thing is that every time you avoid or run away from a situation, the negative belief strengnthens. This makes it more difficult to deal with the same situation next time and explains the increasing hold of fear on life. So, how do you change this? It is quite difficult to change your belief system overnight. Even though you know there is no danger, still you believe it is there. You need to weak negative beliefs by reversing the process that makes them strong – ie stop avoiding and running away . That's it! Face your fears! How many times have we heard that? It is that simple. I know this is easier said than done but there is a strategy you can use to do this.
Firstly we need to understand what fear does. When you cross the mental barrier (“point of no return” – usually characterized by catastrophic thinking like: “oh God! It's happening again”) and believe you are trapped and in danger, there seem to be three major physical symptoms that make it increasingly difficult to stay in the situation:
- Holding of breath
- Tensing the body
- Hurrying out of the situation
These symptoms are reflexive in nature. This means fear causes them and they in turn increase fear – which means the panic gets out of hand pretty quickly. Remember our goal is to face the situation through to end. So if we are to stay put in the situation, we need to work to mitigate the symptoms. This means:
- Keep breathing – no matter how it comes out, keep taking in oxygen.
- Instead of tensing let the tremors come – let the body shake / tremors come freely. I am sure you are familiar with tremors associated with panic. Give them freedom to express themselves! You probably think everyone notices them. You might be surprised but most people are lost in their own thoughts and hard notice these things. It is very hard to notice when someone is having a panic attack. This is a fact.
- Slow down – act / speak slowly and say to yourself “I can stay in this situation forever”. You are not trying to hurry. If you are, you are still avoiding the situation and reacting to fearful thoughts.
Notice the positive self-affirmation we use here – “I can stay like this forever”. You can use others through the process. Here are two more I frequently use:
- 'There is only discomfort – I am safe'
- “I have all the time in the world”
Obviously keep these statements short, as it is easier to say them when in the middle of a panic attack. These statements have a subconscious effect that might not be visible straight away. As you practice the method and become calmer in situations, you will see the statements passing through your mind without effort and the calming effect will become more visible. There is another important thing you need to know. People who have a phobia usually believe that anxiety escalation in a panic attack is limitless. Reality is not quite the same (it might come to you as a shock). Panic attack does have an end – your mind will calm down . As you face the situation, you will see anxiety levels rise. But, if you stay in it for a while, you will see them fall back down again. You will become calmer and focused. However, this usually happens in waves – the anxiety goes up, then down, then up again and so on. Remember you are up against beliefs with a deep subconscious penetration. As you face a situation properly, your mind initially calms down but then maybe rise again (sometimes within a few seconds). You should follow the method again until you are out of the situation (without hurrying – take your time).
Do not be discouraged if you 'feel' it is not working. This is your negative attitude at work. Try to keep a positive outlook as much as possible (I totally understand this is quite difficult sometimes). It will take time and you can not expect overnight results. You have to unravel years of negativity. When you try this at first, you might feel quite exhausted and physically and mentally stressed. It may seem you feel worse than you did before. This is a very important and necessary part of the process and we will come to it in a while. To give you some perspective, I have been practicing the method for over a year now and actually did not start seeing major results until the eighth month! However at this moment in time, I am at a stage where I feel comfortable with my life. Everyday tasks do not seem daunting and I do not feel like a prisoner. Obviously, there are still certain situations that I dread but I am taking steps to face these and do not feel afraid to be afraid (if you know what I mean). The bottom line is, progress will most likely be non-linear – meaning you might not see results for some time but then you see a burst of progress. For eg over the last year, my fear of eating with my colleagues in the canteen at work did not improve. I always felt anxious and dreaded while walking to the canteen. It appeared there was no progress. Surely, I should have made some in one year! However, after 14 months, one day, I was no longer afraid! The anxiety went away! To be honest, there are still episodes when I get a flash of anxiety. But I am sure this will go with time. Non-linear progress also means difficult situations you thought you had overcome, come back and haunt you again. This is perfectly OK and natural. Remember, you are facing your subconscious beliefs. They are engrained deep in your mind and it takes some doing and time to transform them completely. However it will not take a lifetime to get to a point where you feel your life has transformed. Have patience and face your fears – it will come. Believe me, once you break through one mental barrier, you will get hooked. When you gain a particular situation and stand calmly while in it, you will feel indescribable joy. It's like a bird freed from a cage.
Let consider the stressful state experienced immediately after confrontation a challenging situation. What is that all about? To understand this, you need to realize that the mind suppresses memories / emotions from a traumatic experience that are too painful. In order to protect itself from feeling them, it develops mental barriers against similar situations. The phobia is a result of this. Now when you break this barrier and face fear, these memories are released into your consciousness. This manifests itself as stress. The stress needs to be felt and underlining emotion expressed – whatever that may be. So go into a room and make sure that no one disturbs you. Be comfortable, take a few deep breaths and let go of your mind. If you feel sad – then cry. If you feel angry then visualise screaming at who / whatever situation that comes to mind. Practice deep breathing (see below) in between screams. The aim is to let go of yourself and the mind so memories can be assimilated, emotions felt and expressed and acceptance can be achieved. These are few exercises I use to 'clean' the mind:
- Deep Breathing: In-breath needs to be as deep as it can go and held to a count of 3. Then released with slow out-breath. Repeat a number of times. After few moments, you will feel relaxed.
- Visualising: Imagine the situation of fear that has 'upset the system'. Feel objects in your imagination (this makes exercise more real) for eg feet touching ground or coldness of air or hand holding the grocery basket. Now, feel the anxiety you felt (this should be fresh enough in your mind as you are still feeling its after-effects). Let out the anxiety eg mentally scream (hear your sound and the people being shocked / scared – I even imagine windows blowing up – more powerful the scream or action is, the heavier the bulk of emotions that are released). Sometimes I imagine picking up a car (with my bare hands!) And throwing them 100/200 metres! Not physically possible, but the result is amazing! Especially as the car hits the ground. I feel a release – characterized by a very deep in-breath followed by a slow long out-breath where you feel the tension flowing out.
These techniques should bring back your composition and peace of mind after the initial hectic shock to your system.
I believe this method can be used not only to cure phobia but also in other things. We can now begin to understand that negative behavior patterns (apart from fear) can be seen as a 'mental barrier' that the mind develops in order to suppress painful emotions. For eg a boy who was bullied at young age, becomes a bully. The mind creates a barrier by placing itself in the role of a bully rather than the victim to keep unresolved memories suppressed. The urge to be a bully is very strong and hard to resist. He does not want to accept himself as a victim. If he realizes this and overcomes the 'barrier' (by changing his behavior – ie not being a bully), he will release those painful memories. As he comes out of denial of his emotions, realization comes, then expression of the feelings and then acceptance. Every time you free yourself from an issue or undo an emotional knot, you will notice an automatic change in your behavior – it becomes more positive – without effort. As you express hidden emotions, the mind no longer needs to impriminate itself behind barriers – resulting in passive positivity. If by getting over one hurdle you feel such liberation and change in life, just imagine what level you might reach with lifetime of practice – there is no limit! Remember, behind all negative behavior, there are hidden unresolved issues screaming to be resolved. Be negative and your life will become miserable. Free yourself and you will become positive effortlessly!
Rumi says: “Your task is not to look for love but to look for and remove all the barriers you have created against it”