I’m going to put envy aside and come back to it, as I had an experience this morning that’s a lot more relevant to the emotion of fear. Most mornings, I practice mindfulness (important to practice what I preach!) and then do a workout routine before breakfast. This morning, I was sitting doing my mindfulness practice, and I noticed a good-sized house spider walking along the edge of the wall, a couple of feet away from me. It was edging along the floor, stopping, moving a bit, and stopping again. Initially, I could see it pretty clearly, but as it progressed toward me, I could only really see movement out of the corner of my eye. Meanwhile, I was trying to sit and focus on the experience of my breathing – a common mindfulness exercise. My eyes and attention kept gravitating toward the spider, and when that happened, I’d gently guide my gaze toward the front of the room and my attention toward my breath. Although I used to be quite afraid of spiders, I knew I was in no danger, and my fear of spiders has abated considerably (see previous blog about house spiders). So, I just kept bringing my attention back to my breathing. This is the practice of mindfulness. When I practice, my most common distractions usually include thoughts and sensations (itchiness, the urge to move, etc.). I found the spider to be a less annoying distraction than my thoughts, as it seemed a lot more reasonable and didn’t pester me nearly as much as my thoughts usually do.
Sitting there and not moving away from the spider was an example of what you’d do if you were trying to overcome fear of a variety of different things: Be in the presence of what you’re afraid of without avoiding or escaping it. Often referred to as exposure (and similar to the skill we teach in DBT called opposite action), this strategy can help your brain learn that, even though you’re intensely afraid of something, the likelihood that you’ll be harmed or are in danger is quite low. Moreover, other outcomes are more likely, such as that you’ll be perfectly safe, or that you might learn something about spiders, start to find them cute, and so on. If you’re using exposure or opposite action to overcome fears, mindfulness is one of your most important tools. For your brain to learn new things about feared situations, your brain needs to be fully awake and able to process the information around you. So, consider entering into situations you’re afraid of (after first determining that they’re relatively safe), do so mindfully, and pay attention to what happens. Over time, you may or may not become less afraid, but you’ll probably learn that neither the fear nor the situation you’re afraid of are truly dangerous. Once you learn that, you’ll be free to choose what to do and where to go. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.