Fear, fearlessness and courage

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Mark Twain has been quoted as saying, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Fear is one of the most basic emotions.  Some people even think that all emotions can be reduced down to just two, fear and love.  Fear is vitally important, because it tells us there is something wrong or threatening.  It helps us to stay safe from things that might harm us.

However, sometimes we are scared in situations which aren’t life-or-death threatening, and this holds us back from doing the things we want or need to do.  Sometimes fear leads to other emotions which mask it, such as anger.

That is where Mark Twain’s quote comes in.  It’s often implied that courage is the same as fearlessness, but I think that is a mistake (and so, apparently, did Mark Twain!).  Fearlessness would be not feeling afraid at all, and what one person is fearless about could cause terror in someone else.  This might be due to past experiences or traumas, or learning from early caregivers about what is to be feared.  Courage is a quality that emerges when you feel afraid, but move past it to do the thing you want to do anyway.

If “being courageous” isn’t the same thing as not being scared, then it’s possible to feel courage and act bravely while still being scared silly!  You might dismiss compliments on your courage and resilience by saying, “yes, but I was so scared…”.  That is giving you far less credit than you deserve, and overlooks the strength you showed in overcoming your fear.

Often the best way to move past fear is by exposure to the thing which scares you.  You might feel able to do this by yourself, or you might want support and guidance.  For example, graded exposure therapy can be very helpful for phobias and OCD.  Major airlines offer “fear of flying” courses, and London Zoo’s “Friendly Spider Programme” offers an excellent course for arachnophobes.  Please note, these types of therapy are supportive and compassionate.  At no point would you be forced to do anything you’re not yet ready to.

What induces fear in you?  What does it hold you back from?  How would you like to move past it, and are you giving yourself enough credit for how you manage your fear?

Breathing exercises

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January can be a rushed time of year – catching up after a break over the holiday period, new year’s resolutions, struggling with weather etc.  Sometimes you might feel like the Red Queen, running faster and faster to stay in the same spot!  Breathing exercises are a simple, free way to take a moment to calm and gather your thoughts.

Despite seeming so simple, breathing exercises may relieve symptoms of stress, lower blood pressure and even help boost your immune system.  In “Reasons To Stay Alive” the author, Matt Haig says, “So many anxiety symptoms – dizziness, pins and needles, tingling – are directly related to shallow breathing“.  These symptoms in themselves can cause you to be stressed or anxious, and the value of breathing exercises is to break that cycle.

As always, before trying any new health or exercise regime, check with a doctor first.

There are a number of breathing exercises available. You may want to combine them with other forms of meditation, such as mindfulness or other grounding exercises.

A quiet and calm places required in which to do your breathing exercises.  This may seem quite a task, but it is worth making the effort to find or otherwise make such a place and time.  A breathing exercise can take less than a minute – that’s plenty time for three deep and slow breaths.  You can do this while queuing, safely parked in the car, at your desk or even in the loo if you need to!

One of may favourite effective breathing exercises is “7/11”.  Breathe slowly in for the count of seven, and out for the count of eleven.  Don’t force it, let it feel natural.  You may end up with a different count, which suits you better.  That’s fine.

Some people like to visualise using models like this square breathing pattern.

If you’d like something more dynamic, @nathanwpyle has some very beautiful breathing animations on his Instagram.  For example this one, this one and this one.

Try spending the next week taking some time to do some of these exercises.  See if you notice any differences.  You might like to journal your experiences.  Breathing exercises won’t change the situation around you, but as I described above they could have health benefits for you.  These health benefits can make you feel stronger, calmer and more able to cope with what is happening around you.

The festive season

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This time of year is one of celebrations – Yule, Hanukkah and Christmas amongst many others this festive month.  However, the unending “jollity” of the season comes with very specific expectations that can cause stress.

The media often shows very stereotyped “perfect” family celebrations (well, except Eastenders…!) and it’s easy to just accept that’s how things ‘should’ be.  What are your ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ and ‘perfects’ for the festive period?  Where have they come from?  Are they making you and your loved ones happy, or causing more angst?  What would you like to be different, if you could have anything?  What holds you back from that?

It’s also easy to get swept up in running round after everyone and neglecting ourselves.  This can lead to resentment – or even loss of temper.  There has been a lot of talk lately about “mindfulness” – this is a way of living in the moment and enjoying it for what it is.  Events can be spoiled by ruminating over the past or becoming anxious for the future.  Learning to be mindful does take practice, and you might need to spend time and effort managing your anxieties as well.  A way to start might be to use grounding exercises.  Take a moment to really be in the moment – notice the small things and store the memories.

All the talk of celebrating with loved ones can be very difficult if you are lonely, bereaved or have had bad experiences of the festive season.  You might want to ignore the whole thing and hope it goes away as soon as possible.  This is completely understandable.  If you want to withdraw, or say “no” to something which will make you feel worse, you have every right to do so.  You may be nagged or cajoled, but the choice is entirely yours.  You may, however, find you have a support network who are very willing to be with and help you through.  There are also usually local community events for disadvantaged people over the season, including Christmas Day, who need volunteers if you wish to reach outwards.

Lastly, of course, remember that alcohol is a depressant substance and also a big risk factor in accidents.  Please do take care, and I wish you a very happy (and low-stress) festive season.


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You may have heard people talking about “grounding”, “grounding exercises” or “being grounded”.  What does that mean?

The idea of grounding is from meditation.  It involves being connected with the Earth (usually physically through bare feet) and feeling this connection mentally.  Some people also refer to a feeling of being “centred”.  Your focus is brought to the here-and-now.  You can use this to develop feelings of stability and calm.

When you are stressed or upset, especially with many sources of stress, it can be difficult to feel really “here”.  You might feel overwhelmed, unable to concentrate, or even frozen into inaction.  Grounding exercises are meant to help you cut through the concerns swirling round your head.  You might, when anxious, waste energy worrying about things that may or may not happen.  You may feel exhausted and struggle with powerful emotions.  While grounding exercises cannot fix your problems, they can help you to feel more in control and powerful so you can work through them.

Grounding exercises are very simple, but can take some practice.  If you find it difficult, start small!  You could begin with a short breathing exercise, such as this one, every day for a week.

Another simple grounding exercise is to take off your shoes and socks and wriggle your toes in some lush grass (you might want to leave this bit until the weather warms up in the spring!).  Feel the connection to the Earth and other living things.  Breathe deeply.  Don’t push at negative thoughts – just let them flit by and watch them as they fly past like birds.  You can perform a similar exercise indoors if you like, concentrating on the feeling of your feet firmly on the floor.  Then gradually move up your body, feeling the weight of it in the chair and the sensation of your clothes.

You can also try the method described here.  This might help you let go of those concerns you cannot influence right now, perhaps from your circle of concern if you did that exercise.

There are many different grounding exercises available.  Some will work for you better than others.  In my next blog, I will look at your senses and how you might use them to feel more in the here-and-now.


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Has anyone ever told you you are “overthinking”?  What does this mean, and how might you deal with it?

Overthinking is when you go round and round in circles with a problem.  You worry about lots of things that may not actually happen.  It can be associated with anxiety.

You can end up “ruminating”.  The word comes from the way some animals chew the cud for hours, chewing chewing chewing…  Mental rumination is a bit like that, the same negative thoughts over and over again.  It sucks up your time, and your mental and emotional energy.

We all worry about the effect of our actions on others, and what they think about us. Overthinking can take that so far you run a scenario over and over in your head, ruminate on it and wish something else had happened.  You can get trapped in a cycle of “this shouldn’t happen!” and “I’m so far from what I want!”.  Or you think over all the things that could go wrong in the future – even the most unlikely, and fantasise elaborate scenes of how it might play out.

Ruminating over past events and catastrophising over the the future are examples of overthinking, and can cause misery.  Being stuck like this, you end up missing out on the present moment.  You can waste a lot of energy worrying about things you have little or no control over.

You might find it helpful to go to the other end of the scale and consider what the very best outcome might be.  The chances are, reality sits in the middle!  This process might help you to more realistically see what is happening.  If you are really stuck, you could consider each possible outcome and think about how likely each one really is – you will probably be pleasantly surprised by this more realistic view.

Counselling can help you with this.  We can look at and work on your thought processes to find a way that is more helpful to you.  We can also look for the root of your fears to understand what it is that sets off the spiral of overthinking and ruminating in the first place. If you would like to book an appointment, please contact me.


Panic attacks

Panic or anxiety attacks can be very frightening, and isolating for the person who has them.  This can end up causing more such attacks as the anxiety of having an attack builds upon the initial fear.

Unlike the way panic attacks are portrayed in film and TV, not everyone gets the same symptoms.  You may get the fast-beating heart and shortness of breath, might be overwhelmed with a feeling of doom, or may find your body temperature fluctuates quickly.  You might even experience panic attacks as sudden “nit-pickiness” or intense irritability.  Whatever your symptoms are, recognising them as they begin is an important step towards managing your panic attacks.

The good news is, there are ways to take control of your panic attacks – not just while they are happening, but also as prevention.

This article has excellent suggestions for how to manage panic attacks – both during attacks and as general lifestyle changes.

Something that often comes up for people with panic attacks is the fear of fainting.  A couple of years ago I attended a training session on delivering CBT for panic attacks – one thing which struck me was to learn that although during a panic attack you feel as though you will faint, you won’t.  The reason is that for you to faint, your blood pressure would have to drop.  However, during a panic attack, your blood pressure rises (this might also cause your face to flush).  This simple piece of information is something I think is vital to pass on, as it is reassuring to sufferers – the fear of fainting and what might happen after seems to be quite high, so knowing that that won’t happen is one of a number of small steps towards reducing panic.

If you would like to explore your panic attacks with me in therapy, you can contact me to arrange this.