After blogging for less than a week, I am getting contacted by the audience – this makes me so happy! J. wrote:
I’ve recently started meditating and practicing mindfulness. I downloaded a couple of apps to help make it apart of my daily routine, but still have fears if I’m “doing it properly.” I guess this is a normal fear for most people starting out but I tend to overthink things that are seemingly out of my control. I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember, dating back to my adolescence. I suppose my question to you is, how do we stop worrying about things and situations that are probably never going to happen?
The first thing that comes to mind is one of my favourite quotations from Mark Twain: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Even the way J. phrased the question is so interesting: how do we stop worrying about things and situations that are probably never going to happen? Clearly J. cognitively understands that his fears are unfounded: the things he fears are probably never going to happen. However, intellectually understanding something doesn’t always help us feel it. Depending on your personality, it may of may not be possible to outthink a feeling. As an ENTP, I only require a conscious realisation to change the way I feel. The answer is always within us.
What does worrying do for us? Why are we so addicted to it? How do we manage to continue to worry even though it hurts so much? The answer is that on some level we believe that worrying is better than not worrying. How can worrying be better? It is better because it keeps us safe. In a sense, it makes us feel like we are in control. If we are always looking out for what can go wrong – bad things are less likely to happen. This is a likely core belief for someone who worries a lot. Our brains are evolved for fear: fear is the software that keeps us safe. As a species who is only 200,000 years old and whose conditions have changed so starkly in the last few hundred years (food is more available and sabre-toothed tigers aren’t that common), we haven’t managed to change this core software of fear. Fear is our friend. It has kept us alive as a species. There comes a point where it just isn’t feasible to keep budgeting for the downside. Once you are prepared, once you have addressed everything that is in your control, that’s it. Fear is no longer useful (we’re not taking about survival situations).
Seneca’s letters are incredibly helpful when it comes to dealing with anxiety in my experience. The thought of reading or listening to an Ancient Roman philosopher is daunting, but it is surprisingly approachable. Seneca wrote a bunch of letters to Lucilius – and these letters are often regarded as a key text in stoic philosophy. They read like a reddit post though! Letter XVIII. On Festivals and Fasting talks about putting yourself in controlled situations that you fear. It’s not about leaving your comfort zone or skydiving if you are afraid of heights. It is considering: what is the worst case scenario. The outcome is that you become less afraid.
It is easier to believe something when you see it. Everyone has friends who are chill no matter what happens – they are the people you want to spend more time with. Maybe that’s not possible, but you have the internet – lot of bloggers, youtubers etc, who laugh in the face of fear – people who do extreme sports, etc. Seeing that another point of view exists is always helpful in getting out of a rut.
You can also play word associations with yourself. No thinking allowed. Just blurt out the very first thing that comes to mind. Say fear – what would you say next? I was very surprised when I did this exercise. The first thing that came to me was abandonment. Fear of abandonment is a very real thing. Cognitively, I thought that I would be afraid of not achieving certain goals. What bubbled up in this interesting exercise was that I was afraid for my relationships. It didn’t make cognitive sense before it happened, but when it did – it gave me a huge insight into a whole part of my life I was hiding from.
How does mindfulness make this better? It allows these fears to crystallise – when fears are less vague, they are easier to handle. It allows things that we are hiding from to bubble up and be dealt with. And of course worrying is a habit. It requires certain pathways to strengthen. By directing what your mind is doing, it is easier to replace the worrying habit with something much more productive. Scientific evidence that I will go through another time supports the idea that mindfulness helps with anxiety.
Some philosophers and psychiatrists believe that we only have two fundamental emotions: fear and love. It doesn’t make much sense at the start, but on reflection: what is anger? It is fear that someone is crossing your boundaries. What is regret? It is fear that you missed out. What is sadness? It is fear that life will never be this good again. The ultimate fear is that we aren’t deserving of other people’s love, that we’re not good enough.
In that vein, the only way to deal with fear is to focus away from it – onto something else. Instead of asking what can go wrong, ask how can I make it better? Instead of asking how do I avoid peril, ask how can I get what I really want? Instead of asking how do I stop worrying, ask how do I help my friend stop worrying? Our brains will probably default to looking for sabre toothed-tigers, unless we ask the right questions.