Previous month:
April 2013
Next month:
June 2013

6 steps for conquering an irrational fear


Most us probably fear things that we shouldn't really fear—like a routine dentist appointment or that teeny tiny crawling spider—and even though we realize, rationally, that we shouldn't fear something so silly, we just can't seem to help it. Most of the time these little fears don't hinder us too much, but there are times when they can prevent us from making positive choices—like when you going to the dentist every six months—and there are times when they can prevent us from living in the present—like when you spend time outside searching for potential bug encounters. 

That last line pretty much sums up where this whole irrational fear topic is coming from. For the past few weeks, every time I take Barkley for a walk, I search the ground relentlessly, I carefully scan the bark of trees, and I cock my head listening for that all-too-familiar screeching sound. Rather than enjoy my little outdoor breaks with Barkley, I'm constantly embarking on a fear-based hunt. And the dreaded creature I'm searching for isn't some crazed monkey or ravenous lion. It's a small, two-inch-long insect that doesn't bite or sting known as a cicada

cicadaFor those of you who don't live on the US East Coast, you might not be familiar with these winged beasts that crawl out from the ground by the millions every 13- to 17-years to mate. During this oddly-timed ritual (I mean, how do they know it's been exactly 13 or 17 years?!), they shed their exoskeletons, make a preposterous amount of noise, and fly around wildly and erratically in search of a mate. Other than some damage to certain types of trees, they don't really hurt anything, especially not people. But, if I'm completely honest, they make me more than a little nervous. I am not excited to see them return—particularly now that I'm out and about with my puppy every few hours. 

Scientists say the cicadas will arrive when the ground reaches 64°, but, not having a thermometer handily plunged in the earth, I have to rely on my eyes and ears to spot these harmless-yet-terrifying creatures. As the temperature continues to increase into the high 70s and 80s, so too do my efforts to spot the first cicada. Even though I know they're harmless—and inevitable—I find myself constantly searching, as if by spotting one I can somehow quell the dread I experience when I think of their impending arrival.

Of course, my rational mind realizes that, whether I spot one or not, they're coming—and there's not a thing I can do about it. And yet I find myself absorbed by this fear—or perhaps more accurately, dread, since I'm not really afraid of them—and it's taking me away from the present, putting my mind into an imagined future where cicadas are flying spastically all around me and I'm terrified of even the shortest venture outside. I know better than anyone that living in an imagined future (especially a fear-based one!) does nothing but soil the present, which is exactly why I've resolved to (attempt to) conquer this irrational fear of cicadas—at least until they arrive. 



1. Address your emotional responses.
The first key to dealing with any fear is admitting to it (not always easy if, say, the fear is a bug and you are an adult!). And the next key thing is to recognize your emotional (and physical—heart beating fast, muscles tensing up, palms sweating) responses to the fear. Sometimes fear—especially the irrational kind—can take over and we don't even realize how afraid we are of something until we start paying attention to our own signals. When we pay attention to how we are feeling and when we are feeling that way, we are able to work with those emotional responses rather than simply react to them. 

2. Question your negative thoughts.
The best way to deal with an emotional fear response is to question the negative thoughts. For example, I think to myself, "Cicadas are going to come and swarm around me and get in my hair and Barkley is going to eat them and I am going to freak out if they land on me..." etc., etc. When I think things like this, it's time to start questioning those thoughts. Are they definitely going to land on me? No. If they do, will it be the end of the world? No. If Barkley eats one is the worst thing that could happen? No (people even eat them!). The more I question these negative thoughts, the more I'm able to see my fear more rationally. 

3. Use your senses to stay present.
While I'm anticipating the cicadas, I'm missing out on what's actually happening in the present—what I can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. Instead of directing my attention to what I'm going to be afraid of it in the future, it's best for me to focus on what's happening now, which includes all of the beautiful things about springtime. Rather than worry about what's coming, we need to redirect our attention to what's here. And even when the cicadas do arrive and I'm fearful of them, I can focus my attention on other aspects of my daily walks, like Barkley proudly carrying a little stick or a whole azalea bush in full bloom. 

4. Get (gradual) exposure to what you fear.
It can be hard to actually expose yourself to what you're afraid of (just looking at photos of cicadas online sends shivers of disgust down my spine!), but when the fear must be conquered (after all, I can't stay indoors for the six weeks these little guys are out and about!), it's key to start gradually coming to terms with the fear. I've started doing this by looking at them online, and, while I won't say it's really helped that much yet, I have a feeling I'll be less surprised when I encounter one of these guys in real life. Plus, once they arrive, I'm going to give myself a chance to check them out up close so I'm not so scared if I do come in close contact with one. 

5. Recall what you've conquered. I've been through these cicada cycles three times already in my life and each and every time I've made it through; I've conquered this same scenario three times. Even when I recall the unpleasant experiences I've had with them, I realize that, in the big picture, these little bugs don't really impact my life that much. (Though, to be fair, one of my earliest memories is riding my pink Big Wheel bike and watching the dead cicadas attached to the wheel spin around and around.) The irrational fear is just that—irrational—and by revisiting the situations you've already been through, you will feel stronger and more ready to take on your fear. 

6. Take it one day at a time.
This might seem like a cliched AA saying, but it has a lot of merit, especially when it comes to coping with fear. Instead of worrying about the cicadas coming, I need to focus on today. They have not yet arrived. And when they do arrive, I need to focus on that day and that moment instead of worrying about whether or not I'm going to have an encounter with one. To cope with any irrational fear, it can be so helpful to take it one day, hour, minute at a time. Instead of worrying about the future—six weeks of cicadas! ahhh!—the trick is to focus on getting through little bits of time. It's much easier to master a fear when you tell yourself you only have to do it for a short period of time. And all those short periods of time add up! 

Fear is a funny thing. It can take over our minds and make us believe danger is imminent even when we are perfectly safe. It can supercharge our emotions until we're almost blinded by what we believe to be a very valid state of mind. It can hold a lot of power—but only if you allow it to. Difficult as it might be to see sometimes, we have more control over our fears than we let on. It's often easier to give into them, to let them take over, but we have the power to take back our own minds, directing our attention back to what's rational and true. Obviously the fear I've discussed here isn't a major one (or a rational one), but it shows how a small thing can gradually manifest itself into a big thing if you don't make an effort to conquer the fear.  

anticipation: how to make the most of expectation


“An intense anticipation itself transforms possibility into reality;
our desires often being but precursors of the things
which we are capable of performing.” 

Samuel Smiles


Did you know that anticipating something can be a way to boost your happiness level? Yep, it's true! Apparently the act of anticipating a pleasant event can make you feel happier. Studies, such as this one referenced in The New York TImes, have shown that simply anticipating a good event—such as a vacation—can boost happiness for weeks. This is likely because, as Tali Sharot writes in her book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, "anticipation of a pleasurable event seems to activate neural systems that are also engaged while actually experiencing the enjoyable event." While what we feel might not be exactly the same, Sharot's own studies have shown that the pleasure of anticipation can come pretty darn close to the actual experience. 

This information, of course, raises the questions: How do you anticipate an event and still stay in the present? Is it even possible to do so? While I truly believe staying in the present is an essential aspect of living a positive life, it's hard to deny that anticipating a future happy has it's benefits. There's a hopefulness, an excitement, to imagining something wonderful in the future that can, in fact, make the present even more joyful. 

Personally, I'm experiencing this anticipation right now. For my upcoming 30th birthday, my boyfriend just booked us a trip to check out Oheka Castle, one of the grand Long Island estates that inspired The Great Gatsby (my recent obsession, for those who have been following the site and Instagram these past few weeks!). I couldn't be more excited to take in the luxury and beauty that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous character's home. An entire summer must pass, however, before I'll set foot on the Oheka grounds—which means months of anticipation, something I'm to which I'm actually looking forward. 

I'm not much for waiting—patience is not my greatest virtue—but after reading up on anticipation and giving it some thought, I've started to realize how valuable it really is in terms of creating more happiness. Yes, I could easily drive up to Oheka Castle next week and check it out, but what fun would that be? Would it be less enjoyable without the weeks of waiting? Odd as it is to say, I think it's the anticipation of it that makes it all the more exciting.  

Even though focusing on the future goes against the idea of being present, there's some merit in allowing yourself to daydream about future (pleasant!) events, to look forward to something wonderful coming your way. The trick is to know how to make the most of anticipation, to use it in a way that enhances the present. Here are some tips: 




1. Picture the event in vivid detail. In Sharot's book, she argues that one way to get the most out of anticipating an event is to picture it in vivid detail. The more details about the event you can imagine, the more joy you'll experience from your anticipation. I couldn't agree more. The more you imagine the event, the more you'll look forward to it—and the more your brain will get those cues that you're actually taking part in it before it starts. 


2. Expect good things to happen. It can be hard not to anticipate what could go wrong when you're looking forward to something (what if the concert gets canceled? what if it rains on my wedding day? what if I get sick on vacation?), but if you want to make the most of anticipation, you have to focus on all of the things that could go right. When you imagine in vivid detail what's coming up, imagine the good things. Picture everything going just the way you want it to. 


3. Save the best for (almost) last. If an event is really, really far away, don't start focusing on it so much. Wait until it gets closer to imagine all of the amazingness that's coming your way. Sometimes when it's too far away, it can be disheartening to imagine what's to come. It's alright to think about it, but save the really good anticipation—like all of those vivid details—for when the even is just around the corner. This way it won't take over too much of the present. 


4. Don't detract from the now. It's a tricky balance—looking forward to the future while staying present—but the key is to make sure that your anticipation isn't detracting from the present. If you find yourself not doing certain things or holding back in certain ways because you're focused on what's to come, it's time to redirect your attention to the now. While it's great to have excited expectations, they won't truly increase your happiness if they stand in the way of the present moment. 



"Sometimes expecting a good thing is more pleasurable than actually experiencing it," Sharot writes in The Optimism Bias, and I actually can't argue with that. (Just think of the times you've imagined some amazing event only to have the real event leave you feeling a little let down.) Perhaps its expecting too much from something (I'm talking to you, New Year's Eve!) that takes away from it. Or perhaps it's just that anticipation can be so fulfilling that an actual experience isn't as good as expecting that experience. Either way, I think Sharot's words serve as a good reminder that: (1) anticipation can be pretty awesome and (2) anticipation, if overdone, can take away from the event itself. As with most things, moderation in expectation is key. While it's fun to look forward to the future, don't let it spoil the present. 

borne back into the past: lessons from the great gatsby



[Warning: There may be some Gatsby spoilers in this article. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie and don't want to know details about the plot, come back to this article later.] 


With the new movie debuting this weekend, I've re-discovered my love of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It's such a powerful tale about how much dwelling on the past can impact not only your life but the lives of others as well. I loved the story the first time I read it in high school, but re-reading it now (at nearly 30-years-old—almost exactly the age Nick Carraway was when he spent a summer with Gatsby), the book has taken on an entirely new meaning for me.

One of the reasons I started Positively Present is because I was struggling to overcome the past. I was both tormented by it and yet oddly desperate to relive certain moments again and again. Sometimes I'd literally try to get back to the past by returning to the same locations, people, and activities. Logically, I knew the past was gone, but I couldn't stop myself from trying to relive it at times. And much more often than I liked, I found myself ruminating about what could have been had things gone differently.   

Had I possessed the charm and resourcefulness of Gatsby, perhaps I too would have gone to drastic measures to recapture what I had believed to be lost. (For those who need a refresher on the story: Gatsby has created an entire lifestyle of lavish parties and wealth in the hopes that former love, Daisy, will return once again to his life.) Maybe I too would have done whatever I could have to reclaim what had once been mine. But, not being the great (and fictional) character Gatsby, I was forced to move forward—to at least try to keeping paddling into the future even as I felt myself repeatedly being pulled back into the past. 

Right before I started Positively Present, I made the choice to focus my attention on the present. I understood it would never be easy to let the past go, but dwelling on it had clearly gotten me nowhere. I'd been borne back again and again into the past and, despite the ever-pounding waves and the relentless current, I made the choice to fight back, to choose now over then.  

It was one of the best choices I've ever made. 

Difficult as it was—and, quite honestly, still is—choosing to focus on the present transformed my life. Rather than dwelling on what I did or did not do, I was finally living. I still think about the past (who doesn't?), but I no longer dwell on it with a Gatsby-like determination to return there, either to undo or redo what had already been done. Though I still struggle to come to terms with what was, I now know that living a life focused on the past isn't really living at all. And as I re-read The Great Gatsby recently I realized that the character of Jay Gatsby is living-in-the-past personified. He spent is present creating a future based entirely on his desire to go back to the past. 

Gatsby's intense focus on the past doesn't work out so well for him in the end (poor guy), but his tale provides some valuable insights into just why dwelling on the past can wreck havoc on the present... 



“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby's] dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”


When we long for the past, recapping it again and again in our minds, we fail to realize that what happened in the past is not always the same as what we remember happened in the past. Odd as it might seem, what we remember isn't always what actually happened—and sometimes we remember things with a more positive, or at least more interesting, spin. 

No matter how much Gatsby loved Daisy or how great things were when they were together, it probably wasn't nearly as wonderful as the illusion he'd spent years creating in his mind. Like Gatsby, many of us store up memories, recalling times when everything was seemingly perfect. Some of us, like the ill-fated Gatsby, waste the present trying to return, in some way, back to that "perfect" time in the past. Many of us have newer, fresher experiences that dim the past and pave the way for living in the present—but sometimes memories of an imagined, better time shine so bright that they blind us to what is real. 

When it comes to recollections of Daisy—and the great love Gatsby strives desperately to relive with her—Gatsby is probably experiencing something called a flashbulb memory, or a highly detailed memory of a particularly emotional moment. As vivid as these memories are, they are often far from accurate. As Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, wrote about flashbulb memories: "flashbulb memories are not so much Polaroid photos as snapshots brushed up in Photoshop again and again. The retouched photo might resemble the original image, but it is no longer an exact representation of what was initially captured."  

Most of us probably have flashbulb memories from traumatic events—like 9/11 or an expected loss—but what about the ones that cause us to recall the past in such rosy-hued detail that we long to return to the past? Hard as it can be to admit—our minds don't tell us the truth?!—it's true: our memories are not always (or often) accurate. The way we think certain time or person or situation isn't always the way it actually was. And, as a result, attempting to return to that place in the past will rarely, if ever, result in that "perfection" we had imagined. As Gatsby learned the hard way, dwelling on a negative past event will certainly not help to create a more positive present. 



“'Can’t repeat the past?' [Gatsby] cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'” 


While we I know, logically, that we can't go back to the past, we're often nagged by the idea that we can somehow re-create it in the future. Gatsby believed he could re-create past experiences he'd had with Daisy by creating a future so fabulous she couldn't resist leaving her life to spend the rest of her days with him. In some ways, he got a brief glimpse of the past in the present moments he shared with Daisy, but what he shared with her in the pages of the book would never be the same as what they'd shared in the past. Too much time had passed, too much had changed. 

Dwelling on the past—either the good or the bad—can cause us to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. If, like Gatsby, we relentlessly desire to reconnect with what was, we risk missing out on the now. Though the past itself cannot be repeated, elements of the past can. And if we are constantly in search of moments that have already come and gone, we're missing out on the moments happening right now. 

Gatsby so desperately wanted to go back to a different time and place that he focused all his attention on trying to create a life that would bring him back there. But that burning desire for what was kept Gatsby stuck in the same figurative place, focusing on the same goal with such intensity that he missed out on living his own life. Now, that's not to say that having an intense focus on a goal is a bad thing—it can be wonderfully motivating and useful in some cases—but to have a goal that revolves around recreating the past, well, that can be trouble.

It could be argued that Gatsby didn't keep repeating the same mistakes—he created a fabulous life for himself, very different from the average existence he'd had when he first met Daisy—but I'd challenge that. To me, Gatsby's actions were a direct result of wanting to go back to the past, to recreate it in the future. And, while it's not entirely clear what Gatsby did to get all of that wealth, I'm pretty sure not all of it was positive. To get back to the past, Gatsby had to get his hands dirty. Going backward can be a dirty business—one that rarely leads to a positive future, a lesson Gatsby learned the hard way. 



“[Gatsby] talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.”


In a recent interview with E! News, Leonardo DiCaprio, portrayer of Gatsby in this year's film, said, "I've always felt like Jay Gatsby was detached from it all. He creates this illusion of this castle and parties and all this great wealth, but he's not enjoying himself. He's not really present in that time period. He's consumed by something else." What Gatsby is consumed by is the past. He is not in the moment. He is only thinking about how he can get back to that place of happiness, that time when he was with Daisy. Of course, it's about so much more than Daisy—it's the person he was when he was with her, the way she or that time made him feel.

Gatsby, despite is clear mission to recreate that lovely time with Daisy, does seem like a lost soul. As much wealth and prosperity as he seems to have, he isn't happy. He's spent a great deal of time trying to create a world that Daisy will love in hopes that she will love him again, and in that singular mission to return to what was, he lost himself. Focusing too much on the past can do that to a person. It causes you to miss out on the now—on your own life!—when you dwell on what was. Gatsby's obsession with the past muddled up his present (and cut his future much too short). 

As narrator Nick Carraway muses in the book, "[Gatsby] must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream." Gatsby focused so intently on getting back to the past that, when it didn't work out as he'd planned in the present, he was even more lost than he'd been all that time he'd been working to recreating his past. And that's not surprising, based on what we know about memory and recollections of the past. 

Even if Gatsby had been able to recover the past—to reclaim Daisy, to recover a lost part of himself—it wouldn't have been the same. Time changes things, and the past is not easily revisited. Spending time dwelling on the past won't bring it back, and rumination will only create a sense of loss over and over again. If we spend too much time dwelling on what was, like Gatsby, we will repeatedly feel loss—and lost. It's tough to orient yourself in the present when you're stuck in the past, and you can't paddle yourself into the future when your boat's facing the wrong direction. 



Much as I write about the necessity of staying present in order to create a positive life, I know how difficult it can be to come to terms with the past. It becomes a part of you, as easy to take for granted as your limbs—and just as difficult to imagine life without. Your past shapes you—but it doesn't have to define you. For Gatsby, everything in his present was a direct reflection of his desire for the past. He wanted not to go back to what was, but to recreate the past again in the future—a feat that no man, no matter how rich or charming or clever, can do. 

To a lesser extent than Gatsby, many of us also long to return to some point in time—to recover a loss, to undo a mistake, to savor a moment—but, just like Gatsby's past, ours too is located in a place to which we can never return. Looking back is, at times, necessary and even helpful. But dwelling on what was to the point that we wish to recreate it again in the future is unhealthy and, if taken to the extreme, can have dire consequences. To live a positive life, it's critical to let go of what was and celebrate what is. We may, as Fitzgerald wrote, be "borne back ceaselessly into the past" in our little boats, but we have more strength than he leads us to believe. We can pick up our paddles and row, pushing forward perpetually into the present.