Mindfulness, Fear, Worry and Anxiety (Part 3)
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom”
-Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I love this quote from Victor Frankl–it really captures the essence of how mindfulness, and in particular mindful meditation, can help us deal with fear worry and anxiety. (And other challenging emotions, but that is for another series of blog posts.)
We have seen the in the last two posts how the fear reaction can take over our whole being–physical mental and emotional–and that is some cases that can be appropriate and helpful, but more often in our current world it is the source of stress and unhappiness.
So how does mindfulness, and in particular mindful mediation help when we are face this grip of fear?
In mindfulness meditation we practice sitting in a comfortable position, in a safe place, often with our friends (which at Sea Change includes our classmates and teachers), and are guided to pay attention to our breath, to release internal and external distractions, and to relax. We learn that we need not be controlled by the events that enter our experience–the train sound in the background, or our thoughts about the past or the future, or any emotions that may arise. We learn that we can be calm in the face of those thoughts and feelings–whatever they are–and we can just sit and pay attention to our breath. Our heart rate goes down, our mind quiets, and we learn to relax in the face of even difficult thoughts and emotions–like fear.
Modern science has confirmed that mindfulness meditation creates this relaxation response. One of the earliest descriptions of it in the West was by Harvard researcher and physician Herbert Benson in 1975, who coined the term. The impact of meditation now has been the subject of literally thousands of studies since that time. The work of Jon Kabat Zinn has spawned Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs in what has been reported to be 80% of medical schools and hospitals around the country (and in all the major hospitals in San Diego).
There really is no debate that mindful meditation can create the space that Frankl describes, and thus help to stop the fear reaction from taking over our system. This gives us the power to investigate the source of the fear reaction and choose our response. In that way, we can make our natural fear reaction work in our favor rather than be the source of our unhappiness.
With mindfulness, we can see that the fear reaction is our system represents a message–often a powerful one–and we should take the opportunity to investigate it and not be captured by it. Only then can we choose a wise response.
So mindfulness allows us to examine our fear reaction, not run from it.
Sometimes immediate action is wise–like when the reaction is based upon something real and present (the rattlesnake on the hiking path).
Sometimes our response could be increased motivation–like the fear of doing badly on a test can appropriately motivate us to study harder.
Sometimes the best thing is to let the fear reaction go–when the reaction is senseless, useless worry, and is not based on any real threat that we actually need to be concerned about.
Sometimes further investigation is the best course–like when we have a generalized feeling of anxiety and can’t quite discern its source. In those situations mindfulness allows us to investigate further before the reaction turns into senseless worry.
And sometimes our fear reaction is a message to run headlong at the source of the fear–for example when we are caught in a false story that we are limited, and thus afraid of trying something new.
Indeed, the wisest response sometimes is to go right into the fear, at least to investigate it. Sometimes the fear is a signal that you should push your boundaries and try something new, different, and something which you imagine you cannot do. In those cases, you can learn that in many cases your boundaries are self- created, not real, and that your capabilities are far greater than what you had imagined them to be.
For example, at Sea Change our new students (or their parents) sometimes think that ocean swimming is not something they are capable of–they imagine a boundary and that imagination can create an anxiety which limits them. But with mindfulness they can learn that the boundary is not real, its imagined, and that the truth is they fully capable of swimming a quarter mile, or more, at 15th street in Del Mar–even in January. This simple act allows the student to overcome a fear reaction, and realize they are much more capable than they realized–they conquer their fears, and realize a fuller potential.
So fear is an instinct, and emotion, that is always carrying with it a powerful message. Mindfulness allows us the chance to investigate what that message is and choose a wise response, rather than to be ruled by the fear. In that way, we can use this instinct to our advantage, rather than be trapped by it.