Fasten your seatbelt: 13 practical ways to face your fear, take control and conquer anxiety and phobia
"Cabin crew: arm slides, cross-check and report".
You know what that means, right?
Imagine the anticipation, the butterflies, the expectations. You're traveling somewhere new and exciting.
Now, pair that with racing thoughts, sweaty hands and a thundering heart. Imagine crying during take-off, hysterical crying. Imagine thinking "get me out of here, get me out of here, get me out of here". Imagine thinking "we're falling, we're falling, we're falling". Feel the tighening in your chest, until it feels like it's going to explode. Implode. Feel every single muscle, tense as a rock. Imagine holding your boyfriend's hand so tight it hurts. Imagine thinking "at least we're dying together". Imagine panic.
That used to be me.
I wouldn't, couldn't, relax until the fasten seatbelt sign was switched off. I thought "if the pilot can switch off the sign, he's in control". Until that happened, it felt like I couldn't breathe. And then we would be up and I would exhale, not realizing I'd been holding my breath for the entire time.
Do you get panic attacks? Do you have a phobia? Do you suffer from anxiety?
Or do you just experience fear now and then, for a strange reason, for good reason or for no reason at all?
How the brain works
I'm sure you know that when we are in danger, our instincts take over and we either fight, flight or play dead. Unfortunately, that security system can run a little wild sometimes. (By the way, playing dead is the least common way to react. Funnily, that often happens to me. Let me save that for another post, as it makes for a few good stories...)
All of the above are physical responses. Our rational brain switches off when we are experiencing danger, fear or anxiety. That's why it just doesn't work to think yourself out of an anxiety attack. You can't outsmart fear just by thinking alone. You need to act.
Taking control of your breath
When our instincts take over and we're experiencing fear or anxiety, the only bodily function that you can effectively control is your breath. Naturally, when we are in fear, we start to breathe faster (or forget to breathe altoghether). When we are afraid, we often can't control our behaviour. We can't control our emotions. We usually can't control our thoughts, our clammy hands or our cathastropic anticipation of the future. But we can control the breath.
In order to do this we need to practice - see below.
My story of aerophobia
If you've been reading The Freedom Experiment for a while, you know that I LOVE to travel. And I no longer experience panic attacks and general anxiety when I'm on a plane.
I conquered it.
With the skilled help of a psychologist, I learned to be attentive to how my body reacts, and to take control over it.
Every time I'm flying, when the plane starts taxing, I make sure I'm comfortably seated, relaxing my legs, arms and shoulders. I do the breathing exercises I'm explaing below. I focus.
- And it works! I've been using the techniques below so many times that I now feel in control. I no longer get nervous before I get on a plane. I don't cry during take-off anymore. I still have sweaty hands, but I'm working on it. Soon, I believe, I'll be able to fly without more fear than the passenger in the next seat. (A few butterflies are normal, hysterical crying, however, is not).
Apply anxiety-relieving techniques in other situations
Have you ever conquered your fear? Any fear?
The beautiful part of taking control of a situation you are afraid of is that you can use the same skills to take control over other areas where you experience fear too.
Like when talking in public. When you're alone. When you meet new people. Before and during an exam. When checking your bank account (ahem!).When making huge decisions. When making small decisions. All situations where your heart skips a beat, really.
And you can use the techniques below when you decide to follow your dreams and quit your job, start your business, bungee jump or climb a mountain. Whatever it is that you want to do, but are a little afraid of doing.
The key to take control over any fear or anxiety is to practice. Practice and practice. Doing what you fear over and over is the key to beat it.
Just remember, fear is natural. It's normal. It's there to protect you. It's your friend. Don't beat yourself up for being afraid, try instead to be kind and thankful for it. Face it. And love it.
Respect it. Play with it. Make yourself comfortable with it.
Hope you find the following helpful ♥
13 practical ways to face your fear, take control and conquer anxiety and phobia
1. Do Tonglen meditation
Simplified, Tonglen is a mediation and breathing technique, and I find that it really works when I'm anxious in social situations.
Inhale deeply, breathing in all the pain in yourself and the others around you. Then exhale, pouring out love for all the people around you and yourself. Inhale and feel their pain and your own. Exhale with compassion and love. Continue for as long as you like. Read more here.
2. Do something physical
Since fear is such a physical feeling, using your body often helps to transform fear into energy. Taking a brisk walk, a quick run or doing something like cleaning will both help you take focus away and it will shake the fear out of your body.
Doing a silly dance with loud music on really works wonders too, both to lift your mood and to get rid of that itchy racing heart!
When I'm on a plane, I try to distract myself by consciously reading a magazine, word by word.
A really great novel works too. And poetry.
How about writing down something to yourself when you're not in fear, and reading it again when you start to get all anxious? A little reminder of your safety and amazingness, in your own words, might be just the thing you need. Write it long enough so that it takes at least a minute or two to read.
4. Breathe in a square pattern
Inhale deep into your belly and imagine a straight line (1) like the one pictured above. Then hold your breath for two seconds, pausing in the corner. Then Exhale slowly (2), imagine line number two. Then pause for two seconds before you inhale (3) again. Continue.
The key to this exercise is to slow your breathing. And closing your eyes and imagining a square will help you take the focus away from what you are afraid of. This is the technique I'm using when I'm flying.
5. Think about something you love
It's a good thing to decide on a topic you can use to distract your thoughts on beforehand. Then, when you feel nervous or anxious, try to think about something you love, or talk about it.
Topics can include loved ones, family, friends, pets, good memories, favourite activities, things you're good at, and so on.
Personally, I have this ritual of talking with my boyfriend about our cat, Tonic, when we're flying. We say stuff like "remember when he came over to the bed to cuddle the other day" or "I wonder what he's doing right now while he's home alone". Thinking about him always makes me smile. And it's a little easier to be distracted by something or someone you love.
Describing your feelings with words gives them a voice. Personally, I always carry a notebook and pen, and it gives me the security of knowing that no matter what happens, I can always find comfort in writing about it. I find that this works well with anxiety in social situations, when flying, when I'm nervous before speaking in public or in the days before an event I'm scared about (like the first day at a new school or in the days before I get my exam results).
Here are a few good sentences to start with:
"I'm afraid of ... because ..."
"I think that if ... happens I will ..."
"when I'm afraid of ... it feels like ..."
7. Relax where you are
When we experience fear, our muscles prepare for fight or flight and contracts. This is to help you react faster (and therefore survive), but the nasty side-effects are sore necks, backs and shoulders. It also makes us experience the fear (you know that horrible chest or belly ache) even more intensely. Consciously relaxing your body will make the emotion more tolerable.
How are you sitting or standing when you experience fear? Do you cover yourself with your arms, pull your legs underneath you or curl up like a baby? How are you sitting right now?
Try to sit or stand up straight. Relax your legs. Relax your shoulders. Open up your body and try not to cover yourself up. Exhale.
8. Systematically relax
This works when you're anxious and at home.
Lie on your back on a blanket or in bed with your arms and legs in a comfortable position (much like the savasana yoga position). Focus on one are of your body at a time, and relax your muscle groups systematically. I find that it helps to contract the muscles first, and then relax. This really works if you have trouble sleeping.
9. Get a massage
Nothing works to relieve tension like a professional and/or personal massage. Book a session, or kindly ask a friend or your lover. Relax and soak in all the love. Try to be present and take a little break from worrying if you can
It's also a good thing to learn how to give yourself a massage! Try massaging your feet, hands or neck to give yourself some instant self-love.
10. Hold someone's hand
Knowing, and feeling, that someone is there with us can really help to relieve anxiety. All you have to do is find someone willing to walk by your side. That's what friends are for!
11. Ask for help
Sometimes we know what we need in order to feel better. Like that fasten seatbelt sign. Don't be afraid to ask people to get the security you need. In the aerophobia example I've used throughout the post, asking a flight attendant to give you reassuring smiles during take-off, asking for an extra blanket to ease your stress and feel more comfortable, asking the airline staff to talk you through what happens in the cockpit during the flight - most people are happy to help you!
This works in other situations too, for example - ask someone in the audience to reassure you during your school presentation or speaking gig. Ask your tandem bungee jumping partner to scream "everything is normal!" right after you've jumped. Whatever gives you peace of mind. Just don't be afraid to ask for what you need.
12. Write a trust list
After I read this post by Danielle Laporte, I wrote a trust list that really helped me during a period of great stress. I wrote:
I don't trust in people, but I trust that the sun will rise above the hills and greet the new day. I don't trust in myself, but I trust that my next breath will come surely.
Writing a list of the things you actually trust, no matter what, is really helpful when you feel insecure, distrustful and anxious. Keep it basic. Do you trust in God? Life? Your mother? Your judgement? Do you trust in the sun? Your breath?
I find a lot of comfort in knowing that the world goes on, before and after the event I'm afraid of. This too shall pass.
13. Make some art
Painting really helped me relief my fear of being in a new place last week. I painted an abstract image of my own fear and found that the physical sensation of fear itself was gone by the time I had finished my painting. Actually, anything you're really passionate about can help you take focus away from what you are anxious about. I write poetry on my phone when I'm stressed. Try to find something you love that you can do anytime, anywhere. The best art is the art made from true emotions.
Remember, the key to overcome anxiety, phobia and fear for good is to do the things you fear over and over. Practice using the techniques above and hopefully you'll experience a new sense of control, which will help eliminating your fear once and for all. It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, but you'll slowly realize that you no longer have to fear fear.
Have you conquered your anxiety, phobia or fear? How did you do it? Please share your story with us in the comments!