Embrace your fear
She enters my office with a determined look in her eyes. X is a student who has come in for an intake due to anxiety and panic attacks. Initially I don’t see these complaints reflected in her body language, only in her story. What I clearly do see, is frustration. With herself, with that “damned” fear. X: “I know that I don’t have to be afraid. That it’s in my head. I do breathing exercises, force myself to do scary things. Why is it still there?!”
In our sessions we start working on breaking her anxiety cycle. X gets to know the fearful voice in her head, which has many limiting beliefs and makes predictions that usually turn out to be wrong. She continues her breathing and relaxation exercises, that teach her to soothe herself and be less afraid of her physical sensations. We make a list of situations that elicit fear and take some first steps to conquer these. Although X learns a lot and makes progress, she is still suffering. Her anger about her situation gets in the way of taking further steps.
‘You can view uncomfortable emotions as a messenger’
I tell her that you can view uncomfortable emotions - such as anxiety - as a messenger. If you keep ignoring it, it will press all the physical alarm buttons. My advice: “Notice how you react when you feel fear coming up. Do you fight it, or are you able to listen? And say to yourself: is it okay to be afraid?” I give her a writing assignment, focused on self-compassion to that part of herself that seems hard to accept.
At first X looks at me with raised eyebrows. Still, a chuckle escapes her and she says: “It seems cringeworthy to me, but that’s why I think I should do it.”
The following session X brings back the assignment. She thought it was awful. But also interesting. Writing the letter made it clear to her that she mainly gets stuck in perfectionism. If something can’t be done perfectly, she either doesn’t start or panics. This is actually self-sabotage, she concludes.
In the final sentence of her letter, she reminds herself that she also grows by granting herself more rest and relaxation. That so much happens when she allows more imperfection in her life and lets it flow more freely.
This realization seems to cause a shift. Embracing her fear, and knowing what message it conveys, turns out to be a liberation.
Studenten psychological counsellor