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Working with Fear in Real-Time

My work with one client involved, among other things, regular walks on one of his favorite beaches. These walks often lasted for several hours.

One of the major stressors this gentleman communicated on one of these walks was his fear of not having enough money to meet his obligations. It involved a particularly large bill this fellow owed and as we discussed it a wave of fear and anxiety arose that began to overwhelm him. As we walked a quiet beach we took advantage of the unhurried pace and lovely setting to examine the specific components of his reaction. I suggested that he use this very unpleasant release of emotion as an opportunity to familiarize himself with how the mind often responds to stress when left to its own devices.

We discussed how these releases typically have a beginning, middle and end that can be observed with curiosity, as opposed to strain, and that the entire cycle often has a relatively short duration provided a person does not prolong the cycle with an unskillful response. This knowledge can be quite comforting because when a person is significantly triggered it is difficult to trust that the discomfort and tension will subside since the mind is flooded with fear and anxiety and therefore cannot think clearly. In this not-thinking-clearly phase we often fear that there is no way through this inner conflict so we often compound its strength by attacking others, or ourselves, as a means of seeking comfort yet we create the opposite outcome.

As this process unfolded, and as we continued walking to assist in the release of built up stressful energy, we discussed various stories the mind was generating to increase the strength of the attack. As I coached him in some skills to learn to observe these stories without identifying them as necessarily factual, he was able to observe how the intensity of his reaction was subsiding and his mind began to return to relative balance. And as his balance returned he was better able to evaluate his financial situation than while being flooded with fear and anxiety. This process would have been much more difficult to unfold in a series of 50-minute sessions.

Additionally my client was able explore how in many similar situations he had alienated loved ones and or colleagues while attempting to cope with the situation in the best way he knew how. This unfortunately compounds an already unmanageable situation. Had he known the skill of observing this cycle previously, he might have been better able to trust that the most skillful response might have been to do nothing else but remain quiet for a brief time while the emotional storm passed and balance returned. And as balance returned he could make far better decisions then he could by attempting to do so while clouded by anxiety, anger and fear. This alternative response is a learnable skill and the acquisition of this skill if often supported by the coaching of an informed mentor.

Because we had developed a level of trust, and because we had the uninterrupted time to explore this situation as it was happening without the constraint of the 50-minute time frame, my client was able to have a different experience of this stressor than had been previously possible. He also found it very supportive to utilize me as a coach and narrator as he examined his long term pattern of reacting to a stressful trigger as it was unfolding in real time, not by reporting to me later what had happened without me present as a witness.


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