Feel what you’re feeling

by Dr. Ken Larsen

There is a phrase that I’ve heard from people who practice mindfulness.  “What we resist, persists.”

insides_kenFears that persist in our lives can have a devastating impact on our mental health and happiness.

While practicing dentistry I would see patients who were nearly paralyzed with fear.  This fear was connected to anticipation of the dreaded Novocain injection.  The images dancing through the minds of these people were associated with all the signs of stress and anxiety.  They were not without courage, however.  To show up for a dental appointment carrying that kind of fear was very courageous.

As I talked with these patients, I would hear them describe their struggle with fear.  “No matter how I try to fight it and overcome it, it is still there.”

If I could gain a bit of trust from the patient, I would get their permission to try something.  Usually there was a wary nod of the head.  I’d smile and say something like, “what I’d like you to do is feel what you are feeling.”  This usually elicited a puzzled look. I would then do something like touch the patient’s cheek with my finger and ask them what they felt. They would reply that they felt my finger touching their cheek.  Then I would ask them to stay focused in that mental state of feeling what was actually happening.  I would tell them that I was going to administer the anesthetic and I wanted them to feel precisely what they were feeling and then report to me after the injection just what they felt.

The results were amazing.  Most people got kind of a goofy look, remarking something like, “I hardly felt a thing.”  Or “I felt a little stick and then some pressure.”  We would then briefly discuss what they had learned about the difference between “feel what you are feeling” compared with reacting to an imagined fear.

I would further encourage them by remarking that it was OK not to like getting a shot.  I would smile and say, “I think I’d worry about you if you enjoyed it, but you have discovered that it is a manageable experience and doesn’t have to paralyze you.”  At that point there was usually one of those moments that we sometimes experience when two people understand one another in a new way and a good way.

I’ve come to see that his principle can apply to other fearful thoughts and memories and expectations that assail our imaginations.  Do you struggle with an unwanted, unwarranted fear that is interfering with your mental health and happiness?  I think if we understand the dynamics of “feel what you are feeling” we can make progress in getting free from those fears.

Try it sometime.  Notice your fear or anxiety, then notice what is going on around you.  Slow down, focus on your breathing and notice what you are feeling and where you feel it in your body.  Just feel it and breathe.  You might ask yourself how long you want to feel it and when you are done feeling it let it go.  This sounds too simple doesn’t it.  I used to think that, too, just as I thought that touching a person’s cheek could free a person from a paralyzing fear.  If you sit with it, breathing comfortably, you will notice the phenomenon of what has been called “urge surfing.”  The urge to fear will fade, just as a wave in the surf comes along, builds up, and then fades away.

Part of this process is to examine the reality that surrounds you.  Usually you will not see an actual threat.  Then you can realize that the fear is coming from your imagination.  That does not mean it is not real simply because it comes from our imagination.  It is very real.  The wonder is that you can develop the skill to make the choice to diminish and perhaps even eliminate the power that the fear has over you.

I am obviously summarizing the practice of mindfulness which is being used all over our country to manage stress and the resulting anxiety and fear.   If you want to go deeper with these principles, there is much material available.  I would recommend Tara Brach to start.  She has a wealth of material freely available on YouTube.

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