The Fears You Don’t Face Keep Frightening You For An Eternity, Want A Short Cut?

I have learned of a legend in the Tibetan Book of the Dead by reading about it in Dr. David Burns’s book titled “When Panic Attacks,” (p. 251). Here is a short version of it:

Facing a Monster

According to this legend, you wake up in a dark place after you die. A scary monster appears from the dark that represents your worst fears. Facing this monster, you have the choice of surrendering to it, which is going to bring you the relief of defying it for good, or you may run away which gives you the momentary relief of the fear you are facing. But if you run away, out of the darkness comes another monster that requires you to make the same choices, surrender so you can find relief forever, or run away from it for now. Naturally, the option of running away will eventually wear you out, and you will feel defeated by the monster while remaining frightened for life. However, surrendering to it gives light to the fact that it was a toothless monster, that indeed it was only an illusion and that it might even turn out to be funny that you held such a strong conviction about it even being a scary monster in the first place.

Eradicating Anxieties and Fears

Learning from the wisdom of this legend, there is a very effective technique of eradicating anxieties and fears called the “Exposure Technique.” The trouble is that most people get mesmerized by the fear, say the fear of heights, and avoid going to high places because they don’t like to feel dizzy and anxious. Or in the case of shy people, they would avoid parties or people altogether, because they don’t like to feel insecure and inadequate. This avoidance unfortunately only fuels your fears however. In order to be relieved from the anxiety, you will need to get exposed to it, over and over, until it no longer triggers those uncomfortable feelings anymore.

Confront Your Fears
Exposure therapy can be done in several ways. One way is to literally confront your fears in a real form. For example, someone who fears getting sick and dying would purposefully shake hands with someone who has cold symptoms. They will then see in real life that even if they do catch the cold virus, at most they would feel under the weather for a few days, but they won’t indeed die.

Another form of Exposure Therapy is Cognitive Exposure. In this form you face your fears in your mind’s eye. You think and visualize the dreaded time or the dreaded experience, and you stay with it in your mind’s eye and maybe repeat to yourself a verse such as “I am not afraid of you” and you do this so many times until the fear finally goes away.

Repeated Exposure

Lastly, there is the Interpersonal Exposure technique. For example, in the case of someone with Social Phobia, they might have to actually go to a crowded place such a coffee shop, and scream: “I am shy.” They might have to stand a grand feeling of shame and humiliation at first, but repeated exposure to various social situations and indeed starting a conversation with people, will give the brain a chance to see that it needs not call the “fire department,” nothing bad is happening, so the fear will subside.

In short: Exposure Therapy is the short cut to what otherwise can be a lifetime of fearfulness and anxiety.

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