Befriending our Fear and Telling our Worry to Go

Jacob Derossett

We're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades training and certifying others to teach mindfulness. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness. On today's podcast, we talk about fear and worry, we give examples of fear and worry, we discuss how you can redirect your mind from worry and how you can lean into fear. I am Jacob Rosset. We're here with Sarah Vallely, Sarah, how are you?


Sarah Vallely

I'm great, Jacob, thank you. We are going to tackle some of these questions: Are fear and worry the same. Are they different? Do they have a relationship? Can we decrease fear and worry with mindfulness? I would say yes, fear and worry are different. Worry is more mental, and less physical. And the mental part is often complex. Fear, on the other hand, has a physical component that's pretty pronounced. The thinking part of the fear is less complex. Worry is thought to be more temporary--it's supposed to be. Fear is more long-lasting worry operates in the brain on a complex circuitry and fear operates on a less complex circuitry in the brain.



Worry is considered to be an avoidance strategy away from fear. And fear causes us to do things to avoid the fear. So that's a significant difference. And worry is avoidable. Worry can be optional. I know this is a hard one to swallow. But yes, worry is avoidable. Worry is optional. And fear, on the other hand is unavoidable. It is not so optional. At some point, we will experience a fear about something, it's just part of being a human being. Because of these differences. What we want to do is disengage from our worry and lean into our fears.


Experts say that mindfulness can actually backfire i we use it to treat generalized anxiety disorder and worry when it's used to avoid fear. An example would be you're worried that you might get fired. And so you use mindfulness to quiet those worry thoughts about getting fired, but you don't use mindfulness to be curious about your insecurities that are leading you to think that you're going to get fired.


Jacob Derossett

So when you say lean into fear, what exactly do you mean by that?


Sarah Vallely

There's a few different ways we can do that. One is noticing how the fear feels on a physical level, what does it feel like? Another is we can be curious about the fear and uncover some of the deeper parts of that. Let's break down the fear worry cycle--there's three different components. One is the object of the fear--what you are afraid of. And it's best to get to the part of the object that's more neutral.


The another component is the actual fear. And then the third component is our response to the fear. So that response could be our words, could be us talking about it, somebody talking about their worry or their fears. Your actions are a response, things that you might do to avoid situations, for example. And your thoughts are a response to the fear. And those thoughts are generally worry thoughts. So that's the relationship--worry, specifically are the thoughts that are in response to our fear.


Jacob Derossett

When I'm in a plane, there's not one second that goes by that I'm not aware that we're 36,000 feet in the air, it's like a constant. It just stays at the front of my mind and there are all kinds of sensations, coursing through my body. I'm just basically in fight or flight mode. Me flying is like having a panic attack for however long the flight is essentially. It's just a nervous, tense, sweaty, trembling-like situation. I logically understand, but still, it's still a visceral reaction. It's still a feeling, even though I understand that it's the safest form of travel. You're more likely to get struck by lightning two times in your life I think than to die in a plane crash. The weeks leading up to flying, knowing I have a flight coming up is the worry. And I'm sure when I'm in the air, I obviously worry too. Go ahead and diagnose me--pick me apart. What's going on?


Sarah Vallely

It sounds really uncomfortable. Maybe even a little painful. That anxiety--let's break it down into its components. The object of the fear is being on an airplane and that on its own can be neutral. But the actual fear is the crashing part the possible crashing the death or injury. And am I on the right track here?


Jacob Derossett

Oh, yeah.


Sarah Vallely

Then your response to the fear would be you talking about it? You probably mentioned this to your wife and other people, you're talking about your fear of flying, and that might not make it worse. It might be annoying to some people, but I don't think it's going to make it worse. And your actions that are a response to this fear might be avoiding making travel plans.


Jacob Derossett

So my wife is pretty much against riding in the car, because the duration. If it's a 12 hour drive, even if you're at the airport for two hours each time, you're still getting there in half the time, so I lose the argument and ultimately have to fly. I definitely bargain and try my best to turn it into a road trip. And because I do love driving, ironically, unsuccessfully, I try to bargain out of it every time.


Sarah Vallely

Avoiding travel in some ways might be helpful for you-- might ease your anxiety a bit but might make other aspects of your life a little bit more complicated. And then that third response is that thinking, thinking about the possible ending scenarios. That's the part that makes it worse for sure. That's the worry. That worry is the thinking response to your fear, which makes things worse. That's something we can address.


I have a fear of not fully recovering from my brain trauma. I got into a snowboarding accident a year ago and had a pretty severe concussion, I still deal with some of the symptoms. The object of my fear is my health in five years. So neutral—I could be totally fine in five years. The fear is having the setbacks, having the dizziness, having the vision issues on a deeper level. When I become curious about that fear--it's fear of discomfort, fear of losing my independence. The response to that fear is talking about it, which is generally fine. My action response is I switched from snowboarding to skiing. So that's probably good. And my thought response is the one that is making it worse. I have thoughts of living the rest of my life in constant dizziness. I'm not constantly dizzy. So I don't need to have thoughts about being constantly dizzy. I have thoughts about going blind. My vision is fairly good. It's not 100% since before the accident, but it's pretty good. So I don't really need to have these thoughts, I will wake up and be blind. So that's the worry part. And that's the part of the cycle that can be a problem.


Jacob Derossett

My mother has a deep, deep fear of snakes. And whenever she would see a snake, it would be a very, very huge reaction screaming and running. I had a innocent understanding of reptiles, then based on my mother's reaction, I have since developed a very intense visceral reaction. During the summertime, I hike a lot less than I would prefer. Because I don't want to have a run in with a snake. I'm very aware when I'm walking, because I'm afraid I'm going to see one. And then ultimately, when I do see one, there's that intense pain of fear. And then I just go back wherever I was, and then it's fine. But the stress on the way is ultimately what it is. And I'll feel guilty thinking, I should just overcome this.


Sarah Vallely

When you worry about that, does the thinking become relatively complex? Do you think about possible scenarios?


Jacob Derossett

Oh my goodness.


Sarah Vallely

That's a great way to identify the worry. Are you moving into some of that complex thinking--putting together some of those scenarios? There's a metaphor that I have for the components of the fear worry cycle, that's kind of gross, but I'm going to share anyway, the metaphor is a skin wound and so the actual skin wound is the object of the fear--in and of itself could be fairly neutral. The scab covering the skin wound is the fear. If we just left it alone, it could be fine. We go through the healing process and move through it. But the worry, part of this metaphor is us picking at the scab, making it worse that prolongs the whole cycle--prolongs the fear--doesn't allow us to move through that cycle very easily.


Jacob Derossett

This reminds me the Buddhist idea of one taste--everything is equal essentially. It's your thoughts about the wound that turns it into a positive or negative. A snake is no different from a bunny rabbit--is no different from a human--it's living breathing, has a circulatory system, all that. Actually I don't know if reptiles have circulatory systems. anyways, it's just cold, right? I don't know. Anyways, But again, ultimately, it really all just just is as it is, right?


Sarah Vallely

The skin wound is just what it is. We could say that about the scab--the scab just is what it is, the fear just is what it is. We can just let those be and let it go through its natural process, which can be difficult. But it's possible. This same approach can be used for trauma. When I work with my clients and help them through--heal through their trauma--the pain part is the part that's not so optional. But the shame and the anger part of that is more optional. And so it's leaning into the pain from that trauma and disengaging from the shame and the anger. And that's how we move through the healing cycle.


Mindfulness can allow the fear and the pain to become more of a sensation, and uncomfortable sensation, but sensation that comes and goes without us becoming mentally tied up in it. So that's the big piece here, is how mentally tied up are we in this fear, which is going to make it worse and prolong the experience.


Disengaging from your worry thinking: First thing here is to identify that you're in the worry thinking--being aware of your different types of thought cycles, being able to differentiate a worry thought cycle and name it. “I'm in worry thinking, I'm having this thought cycle right now in this moment.” And that's really helpful because it allows us to accept that that's happening that we're in that process. But at the same time, we're separating from it a bit--it's there, it's can be temporary, it might move on. With practice, we can detach from it in this way. And then using a single pointed focus to redirect your attention. You notice the worry, you name it, take this step back in your consciousness. And then you move your attention towards a sound in the environment, a physical sensation in your body, your breath, maybe looking out the window, looking at a tree.


Jacob Derossett

This is interesting. I actually listened to a podcast earlier today. And they were talking about the visual cortex and expanding your vision. Opening up your vision triggers your parasympathetic nervous system--physically relaxes you. So that could be a useful tactic.


Sarah Vallely

We do that right? We go into this tunnel vision, tunnel thinking, we get in this narrow place. And that causes a lot of anxiety, causes depression. Anytime we can find something that gets us out of fight or flight is great.


Another suggestion for disengaging from your worry is committing to a sitting practice. Because what a sitting practice does, on a neurological level, is it pulls you out of the default mode network. The default mode network is a part of our brain that is activated when we are in worrying rumination, our sitting practice actually shifts and moves us to a different part of our brain where we don't ruminate and we don't worry. That's a great strategy for disengaging from worry.


They conducted a study for people with generalized anxiety disorder and specifically, these people had a fear of failure. They participated in mindfulness training for eight weeks, and then they practiced mindfulness on their own. The total duration of the study was three months, and their fear of failure reduced by 24% after those three months. I see some percentages that are a little higher than that, within maybe two months closer to 30% less fear.


Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Preliminary Evaluation Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy 2008.


To lean into the fear, we can notice what body sensations we're experiencing while we're experiencing the fear. Notice how the fear is affecting your thoughts and your behaviors. Simply saying, “Oh, that's interesting, I'm going into this fear. And then I'm noticing I'm going into all these worry thoughts,” or “I'm experiencing this fear and I'm noticing I'm grabbing a beer or grabbing a bag of potato chips.”


The other really wonderful strategy for leaning into your fear is being curious about the fear--investigating. I think it was Franklin Roosevelt who said, “We have nothing to fear except fear itself.” Do remember that? That's exactly the opposite to what the takeaway will hopefully be on this episode. Really we don't need to fear our fear.


Jacob Derossett

It's really saying, “There's only one thing to worry about, and that's worrying itself.” Yeah, that is probably be more accurate. Because I think ultimately, you don't necessarily get to pick things that you're afraid of.


Sarah Vallely

That was during the Depression, people were in a lot of fear, and they needed some support and motivation to become courageous. And so I think that served its purpose for sure. And that helped people feel brave and feeling like “Yeah, we're gonna make it through this.”


Jacob Derossett

I love a fresh take on something.


Sarah Vallely

How about this, “You have nothing to fear except for fear itself unless you practice mindfulness.”


Leaning into your fear, being curious about it--it's good to ask these questions of yourself. It's nice if you're in a calm state, if that's possible. Ask is this fear about the unknown? Is this fear about failure? Is this fear about mental discomfort? Am I afraid of slipping into depression? Am I afraid of going into boredom? Or is this fear about emotional instability? Am I afraid of losing my temper? Am I afraid of feeling grief? Being curious about what is the fear is really about underneath. And asking what am I afraid will happen if any of these things above happen? What am I afraid will happen if I do fail? What am I afraid will happen if I do become emotional? What will happen if that happens? These are great questions to lead us down this rabbit hole of what this fear is really about.


Jacob Derossett

Honestly, it's more of having to deal with the snake. For some reason this sounds ridiculous as I say it out loud. If a snake latched on to me, and I had to grab it off of me, I think that I'm more afraid of having to deal with that. Not even the death as much as it is that experience--that moment when I have to do that. Funny enough actually about flying. It's not the death as much as it is the moment of the realization of falling through the air. The idea of sudden death and death in general, for some reason doesn't really hurt me too bad. And probably part of the reason why I'm such an avid researcher about health longevity is I'm also terrified of decrepitude. So for me, it's those terrifying moments of the imminence of--I'm probably going to die.


Sarah Vallely

That's what I think is so cool about these questions, is it helps us get to know ourselves better. For me, when I delved in deeper about my fear about not recovering from my brain trauma, I was able to see that I had this fear of losing my independence or having to depend on other people to help me and so that's interesting. From a Buddhist perspective, it's really great to feel comfortable no matter where you are on that spectrum of independence and dependence. I'm only comfortable if I'm on the independent end of that spectrum. So that's some life work for me is to feel more comfortable being in a more dependent scenario. It's interesting.


Jacob Derossett

I do have a gigantic fear of my wife, passing in some unfortunate tragic accident. And I feel like I probably worry about it a lot more than the average person. And when she travels by herself, it's just a very intense experience for me. And when I was a kid, I lost a baby sister when I was really young, my mom had a difficult time with that, naturally. I created this fear on my end of losing my mom, realizing, people die. I didn't even want my mom to get out of my sight.


It's the fact that I would have such a hard time coping with life without my wife--the idea of having to cope with her not being around--it would be too much. I don't think that I could do it. And so that's actually the real deep seated fear is being alone and being having to handle my emotions by myself and not having the ability to have somebody there to help me during that. That was a very recent realization I had and it was very heavy, but it was very helpful.


Sarah Vallely

One technique that can help with those really big fears is to visualize how big the fear would be if it took up space. Would it be as big as the room? Would it be as big as your house? Or think about the power of that fear. What if the power of that fear could take up space? How much space would that fear take up. Someone might say that fear would take up the size of their house, like it's that big. The technique is to visualize that and then actually surrender to it, say to yourself, “I surrender, I give up, you're bigger than I am. I've tried everything in mu capacity to try to overcome your fear, I just can't I just give up, the fight is over.” It's that fighting against the fear that often is what is making it so big. And often when you use that technique, the fear dissipates to some degree.


Jacob Derossett

That's really interesting. While you're speaking about that, I tried to do that a couple of times. And this is really fascinating. I would visualize the fear is this big black blob that was like a gelatin mold right next to this house. And then this is weird--Every time I would do that. the fear would expand out to the size of universe.


Sarah Vallely

You can use some common sense. If your fear really is as big as the universe, is there really anything you can do? It's really in your best interest just to surrender to it and that will take some of the power away.


We can also validate ourselves for having the fear, we might say, “It is understandable I'm experiencing my fear.” That in itself can be super powerful because it's so much in the invalidation of having the fear that causes all these avoidance strategies that we're doing, such as worry. Simply validating yourself for having the fear.


Using self-compassion is another technique. Saying something like “My human body and brain are designed to feel fear, fear kept my ancestors alive. I'm a human being having a human experience.” Normalize the fear experience, reminding yourself that this fear in no way makes you less loved. The fear in no way makes you less worthy of the love. The fear no way separates you from others. And the fear in no way makes you a bad person. Use some self-compassion to continue to lean into that fear.

3 views0 comments