Fear and Anxiety – one of the biggest challenges that we face in life
There is a Zen story, in the words of Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun and inspirational author, that gives us a powerful lesson about handling fear in our lives. The story goes like this:
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, ‘May I have permission to go into battle with you?’ Fear said, ‘Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.’
Then the young warrior said, ‘How can I defeat you?’ Fear replied, ‘My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.’ In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear
Generalized fear and anxiety disorders are a greater challenge for all of humanity. Fear is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. For the earliest of humans (our primate ancestors) who lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly one hundred thousand generations, life-threatening danger was ever-present. From wild animals and even human predators to merciless weather, frightening living conditions led to the development of the “fear factor.”
The fear response expresses in a region of the brain called the amygdala, and though our lives are no longer in constant danger, the legacy of the amygdala remains active. Moreover, because we have been living in a relatively modern era for not even one hundred generations, there has not been enough time to evolve into less fearful, reactive humans. For the time being, unless we become more mindful, the tendency to fear and anxiety will remain hard-wired in our brains.
Millions of people from all walks of life suffer anxiety disorders. In moderation, anxiety is fine, as it prods us on to work for favourable outcomes, example when we prepare for an interview or study for an exam. But when this feeling becomes acute, it morphs into a mental disorder. When anxiety is constant or overwhelming, worries and fears interfere with our relationships and work. This condition often becomes very acute and debilitating, leading to an anxiety or panic attack or even to hospitalization. According to a WHO report, approximately 38 million people in India are suffering from anxiety. All across the globe, the prevalence of anxiety is rising sharply.
Fear and anxiety are among the most common and destructive of emotions. They are related and often coincide. Symptoms of fear and anxiety do tend to overlap. The main difference between the two is that fear is a response to any specific threat, such as being at a great height, using an elevator, and traveling by air. The danger, whether real or imagined, is identifiable and feels definite and immediate. On the other hand, anxiety is a diffuse, unpleasant, and vague sense threat, ranging from mild apprehension to impending doom. Often anxiety follows from an unknown or poorly defined threat. Examples include everyday situations, such as having to attend some social function (“social anxiety”), addressing a large gathering, and writing a winsome resume.
Overcoming fear and anxiety is an extremely challenging task. Rather than facing and confronting their fear, as in the Zen story above, more and more people are turning to medication to alleviate their symptoms. Fear is mostly imaginary, so we must understand that it’s not going to harm us. Trying to gain entry, it will come very close to us, but does not have to touch us. Many try to avoid or escape the feeling of fear, but such avoidance means that fear is controlling our reactions. In everyone the trigger point of fear always remains active. It is only when we give it power it enters us.
If we have a fear of using an elevator, we should slowly and gradually try to use one. Take some close friends and then attempt using it for one level, then maybe more levels the next time. If, however, the fear is a full-blown phobia, medical supervision may be indicated. In any case, if we continue to sidestep our fears, they will only be reinforced further.
If we examine any situation relating to fear and anxiety, we find this message true and inspiring. The most effective way to handle fear and anxiety is to inculcate mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness allows us to give fear and anxiety close attention. This mindfulness can yield a high degree of self-awareness. We must become aware of thoughts, emotions and feelings that are associated with fear and anxiety. When we bring awareness to that which calls our attention, instead of fighting or running away from fear, we can confront and weaken it. We must be willing to accept things as they are, rather than resisting and reacting to them. To inculcate the habit of mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises through Pranayama are among the most effective methods for relaxation as well as for handling fear and general anxiety.
Through mindfulness-based meditation, not only we become more mindful but also enhance our self-awareness. There are many ways to practice meditation but latest studies have shown that mindfulness-based meditation has shown more credible results compared to other types of meditations that are practiced in India. Either we can observe breathing – inhale and exhale of air through nostril, while closing our eyes or we recite one-word mantra silently in our mind.
Studies have established positive results on physical and mental health. Meditation improves our capacity to focus or be attentive for a longer time. More we practice mindfulness, more self-aware and mindful we become. Though there are some other ways too but mindfulness-based meditation works the best for enhancing our self-awareness. Once our self-awareness enhances, the ability to handle fear and anxiety increases.
The art of controlling and regulating the breath apparently began in prehistoric times, when yogis practiced pranayama to improve their health. In fact, Buddha also advocated breath-centred meditation to realize enlightenment. In current era, as science started conducting studies on breathing exercises and publishing the results, the art of pranayama started becoming popular. In India, pranayama is a household word and millions of people do yoga along with pranayama in an integrated fashion. Thousands of studies in recent times have established the benefits of practicing pranayama.