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Free Yourself from Fear and Anxiety

by Scott A. Bonnel, LMFT

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Imagine you’re having a party. As the host of the party, your job is to ensure that your guests are attended to. You notice that one of your guests is being noisy and obnoxious. The guest is getting so loud that you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. How would you deal with this guest?

When I ask this question in a therapy session, the responses from my clients range from pretending not to notice the guest, to threatening the guest to be quiet, to seeing if someone else will intervene.

Now let’s imagine this rude guest represents your feelings. Consider how you responded to the question. Do you treat your own feelings the same way? Do you try to ignore them, shut them up, or give them to someone else to deal with?

Anxiety can be one of the loudest and most obvious emotions trying to get our attention. We can have racing thoughts, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, dizziness, and even feelings of panic. It’s our body’s way of warning us of potential danger. Out of any moment in your life, when else could you feel more in danger than when you’re facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment? That being said, we know it’s not beneficial for our mental or physical health to remain in a state of worry for a prolonged period. It is vital to your recovery for you to learn to cope with your feelings of anxiety.

If you acknowledge your fears, these feelings don’t have to try so hard to make you listen.

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Scott Bonnel

Returning to our metaphor, let’s consider an alternative way of dealing with our “noisy” feelings. Can you act like your own best friend and have a comforting conversation with your feelings? Can you go within yourself and say, “I understand you’re worried. I’m here to listen,” and then actually listen to your feelings? Often, people coping with cancer approach the process with an attitude that says, “Keep your head down and just make it through this.” While this can work for a limited time, after a while, the buildup of stress and anxiety will start to make itself known. However, if you acknowledge your fears, these feelings don’t have to try so hard to make you listen.

So how do you listen to your feelings? Start with this: think of your very best friend, the person you turn to for comfort. They care about you and love you. Your best friend listens with attention, compassion, and acceptance. Would your best friend tell you to shut up and not feel scared?

With personal compassion, you can begin to acknowledge your feelings. Instead of denying or disallowing your feelings, you name them: “I am scared,” “I am tired,” “I am afraid,” “I am feeling powerful today!” Allowing yourself to name your feelings validates what you are experiencing inside. Imagine the confusion your brain experiences when it interprets feelings and is told those feelings don’t belong or aren’t real. Acknowledgment is the first step to acceptance. If I recognize I am feeling a certain way, I allow myself to experience the feeling; I name that feeling. I then can start to accept how I am feeling. This can bring profound emotional healing.

Many people are frightened that if they allow themselves to experience their feelings, they will become overwhelmed by them. “If I start crying, I’ll never stop.” This is the big trick: as it turns out, once you begin to have self-compassion and to acknowledge and accept how you are feeling, the emotions no longer seem so overwhelming. It takes some bravery, but it is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

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Scott Bonnel is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a college professor in Los Angeles, CA. In his private practice, Scott specializes in the treatment of anxiety. He helps individuals, couples, and families facing cancer treatment to become empowered, mindful, and aware during their journey to recovery. Learn more at IWantAPeacefulLife.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.