Facing down fear
Dr Harvey Wasserman says the timelessness of fear gives it great power.
Many of us carry fears within us. Fear of the dark, fear of failure, fear of losing our jobs, our homes, our lifestyle, our loved ones.
Or maybe you are afraid of facing each day without a drink or drugs or are fearful of your partner or that your life is spiralling out of control.
Controlling fear, moving through it and eliminating it is not a simple or easy task but it can be done, says former US assistant professor of psychiatry Harvey Wasserman, who moved to the Burren on retirement and now practises psychotherapy in Galway.
Writing in his new self-help book of true short stories and exercises called John Wayne and the Fierce Kuga Kugas - which he says is aimed at helping people heal early traumas, remove toxic attitudes and increase happiness - he claims that decreasing the control which fear has in your life by only 10 per cent improves your life’s quality by 100 per cent.
What are we afraid of? Loss and death, he says. We are scared of abandonment, embarrassment, shame and humiliation, also. He describes these as the “little deaths, the little murders”.
He says fear is meant for the survival of children, for adults it is “useless”. “There is nothing to be afraid of. There are certainly dangers to be dealt with. That’s different. Dealing is not fearing.”
‘Negative experiences, traumatic experiences, lay down fear pathways in the evolving brain that are much like ruts left like wagon wheels on a muddy road.’
He says it is very easy to drown our fear in alcohol. While the unpleasant sensation may go away the fear goes into hiding where it has “awesome power”, he warns.
“As children we are born without the ability to take care of ourselves or to understand what our world is all about. Negative experiences, traumatic experiences, lay down fear pathways in the evolving brain that are much like ruts left like wagon wheels on a muddy road. These pathways have no sense of time. What might have made some sense to be afraid of as a child no longer makes sense as an adult. But our minds react as if the fear was valid in the present time. This timelessness of fear gives it great power.”
While fear is “necessary” for children it is “totally unnecessary” in adult life, he insists. “Children don’t have judgment, knowledge or power. We as humans have such a long period of dependency and helplessness in learning about the world around us that there is much time for trauma and false learning to engrave a deep sense of fear.
“Imagine that there was a beam of wood on the floor of your living room and I ask you to walk across the living room balanced on that beam of wood. You are very likely to be able to do this. Now imagine the beam was suspended in the air over the Grand Canyon and I ask you to walk across it. You would probably fall off. Did your fear help you to survive? It did not. Fear in the face of danger very often decreases the flexibility and speed of your ability to protect yourself. The Inuit (Eskimos) in their traditional culture learn to laugh in situations where we would feel afraid. Their environment is an extremely dangerous one.”
‘The more you face your fear, the more you eliminate fears, the more self-esteem you enjoy.’
Dr Wasserman says fear is one of the main culprits in human suffering and dysfunction. The more you allow fear to run your life, the lower your self-esteem will sink, he points out.
“The more you face your fear, the more you eliminate fears, the more self-esteem you enjoy. Decrease fear and your independence increases; your creativity and energy increase. Fritz Perls, the developer of Gestalt psychotherapy, defines fear as your life force, your life energy, that has gotten constricted by future fantasies of disaster.”
How can we conquer our fears? He says moving forward in the face of fear is certainly useful. However, it often will not make the fear go away.
“Exercise is extremely helpful. Thirty-five minutes of aerobic exercise four or five times a week will almost immediately drop your levels of fear and anxiety. Aerobic simply means huffing and puffing.
“Meditation has been known for thousands of years to decrease anxiety and fear. I have developed a form of meditation that is effective and simple. Instead of trying to control your thoughts you allow your thoughts to do whatever they will. Sit in a relaxed and comfortable position. Attempt not to move and attempt not to swallow (you don’t want to do this after eating). Attempting not to swallow sounds rather strange but with a little practice it’s easy and comfortable to do. This is not an exercise in perfection so no self-criticism. If you move or swallow simply try not to move or swallow. Take 10 minutes now, attempt not to move and not to swallow. If you feel relaxed, increase meditation to 10/20 minutes twice daily.”
He says sometimes patients stop these exercises before they are healed. Why? “From the fear of all the possibilities that are now available and from the fear of moving away from a familiar though troubled lifestyle. That’s how fearful we can become.”
He offers the following guidelines to help people eliminate fear from their lives:
Getting to grips with fear
1. Admit that you are afraid. Many people bury their fears yet when we are unaware of our fear it can have “massive, powerful control” over our lives, he says.
2. Do not be judgmental about your fear. You need to accept it as part of your existence, as something you have to learn to deal with more effectively or to eliminate. No-one wants to be afraid.
“We all come by our fear naturally. If you beat yourself up, if you have contempt for yourself because you are afraid your energy goes into traumatising yourself, not into facing this fundamental life concern.”
3. Make a heartfelt decision that you will not allow fear to control your life. You will not allow fear to make the decisions that direct your existence. The courage to face your fears comes from fear wisdom. This is the belief that not facing fear is more dangerous than moving forward in the face of this unpleasant emotion.
4. Do anything you can to eliminate the fear that is within you. No-one gets through this life without fear. We all have to face fear if we are going to improve the quality of our existence.
* John Wayne and the Fierce Kuga-Kugas by Dr Harvey Wasserman is described by the author as a “book of healing and transformation”. It is published by Dog Ear Publishing and is available from www.amazon.com