Today I’m happy to share with my interview with Dr Todd Pressman, a psychologist and author of the book, Deconstructing Anxiety.
Interview with Dr Todd Pressman, author of Deconstructing Anxiety
Welcome to Everyday Gyaan, Dr Pressman. As you explain in Deconstructing Anxiety, everyone has a core fear. Would you shed further light on the basic core fears, how they are our interpretation of danger, and how they shape our view of the world?
A core fear is the true fear at the root of our problems. It is a basic, universal theme of loss that we bought into in early childhood when formulating our understanding of how to navigate the dangers of life. In short, is our fundamental belief system of how our fulfillment can be threatened.
There are five core fears that describe in broad strokes the basic belief systems each of us can buy into and they are: the fear of abandonment, of losing our identity, our meaning, our purpose and the fear of death (including the fear of sickness and pain that can lead to death). Each of us, of course, has some of all of these, but one becomes predominant in our understanding based on the early experiences of fear we encountered. Once we buy into our own version of one of these five core fears, we learn to look at every situation through its lens, asking ourselves “does this situation have the potential to threaten my identity (or whatever one’s core fear is)? If so, I have to protect myself before pursuing fulfillment. If not, I can relax and enjoy the fulfillment afforded by this moment.”
Would you share techniques to help those suffering from anxiety identify their core fear and their chief defense?
The exercise called “Digging for gold: Finding your core fear” is simple enough to describe, though there are important refinements we don’t have space to go into here for ensuring maximal success.
We begin by stating a problem (any problem, since all will deconstruct down to the same core fear) in a short, single phrase. If writing the exercise down, we would place this problem at the top left of a page. On the top right we then ask one of three questions of the problem (all three are different forms of the question “What is the fear underneath that problem?”) and they are: “Why is that upsetting to me?”, “What am I afraid will happen next?” and “What am I afraid I will miss or lose?”. Ask whichever of the three seems like it will be most helpful and answer the question with another short, single phrase that goes on the left side of the page one line beneath the first problem. Then ask whichever of the three questions seems most helpful in response to that new problem on the right side of the page.
Continue with this process until you reach the core fear, which will be recognized as some variation of one of the five core fears we mentioned. The person undergoing the exercise will likely have a profound “aha!” experience when they reach the core fear, recognizing that they have landed upon a truth that explains the most fundamental layer of what has driven their thinking, shaped their decisions and actions, etc., their entire lifetime. There is extraordinary power in discovering one’s core fear!
To find one’s chief defense, there are a number of different strategies given in Deconstructing Anxiety, but all, again, are forms of asking ‘What is the primary behavioral set I draw from when responding to protect myself from my core fear (or any of its derivatives)? Each of us have many defenses, but there is an over-arching description that captures them all as our basic belief in how to keep ourselves safe from danger. In fact, it has become a life-long pursuit and therefore characterizes the essence of our unique personality. One of the several exercises for finding one’s chief defense, therefore, is to ask “How, in general, do I respond to threats, challenges and goals?” (since goals are attempts to reach fulfillment, but the chief defense will arise to ensure it is safe first).
Would you explain the technique you describe as “the master key” to resolving fear, “Doing the Opposite”?
If the chief defense is our response to the core fear, it is crucial to understand that the defenses always backfires: they are designed to protect us from fear but end up exacerbating it, amplifying it and even creating more fear. This is because, by defending against it, we make it seem real—as if there is a real threat that requires our defense. Now our minds are filled with the imaginary scenes of what dangers might befall us, so that we can be ready to meet them with our defense. In fact, as discussed earlier, these fears are the result of childhood imaginings and never play out as anticipated. Therefore, in order to discover that there is no real threat (or more precisely, that if there is a problem at all—and often there is not—it is something we can readily manage, rather than the catastrophe we were so certain of), we must “do the opposite” of the chief defense which made the fear seem real in the first place. There are three ways of doing the opposite and several exercises based on these three ways, given in the book. In essence, they all involve removing the chief defense, thereby exposing ourselves to the core fear, to have the direct experience for ourselves that the fear cannot do what it threatened to do.
In Deconstructing Anxiety, you focus on three doorways to resolving fear: body, mind, and spirit. Would you share an example of getting physical with fear?
I would change the wording of the question slightly: rather than getting physical with fear, our goal when walking through the doorway of the body is to release the physical energy of fear. The “three doorways” model says that we are, of course, holistic beings with a mind, body and spirit. There are different exercises given in the program for releasing fear through the doorway of the mind and the doorway of the spirit, as well as the doorway of the body. In fact, engaging any one of these exercises, when done correctly, will release the fear in all three doorways. For example, if we start with the doorway of the body, we might release the physical energy of the fear with an exercise I like to call “the Witness”, noticing the precise moment and movement where we tense up (physically) around the fear. With this awareness (and possibly some exercises from the doorways of the mind and spirit), we can relax this tension, giving the physical sensation of the fear plenty of space to “float there quietly”. Instead of applying tension, we give it more and more space, according to the instructions of the exercise, so that it becomes less and less “squeezed”. Eventually, the physical tension completely disperses in infinite space, the “cosmos within”, wherein the experience of fear transforms into a rather ecstatic sense of freedom and release.
Why do you take issue with embracing positive thinking and affirmations to ease anxiety? Why do you advocate the practice of mindfulness?
Because of fear’s survival tactics discussed earlier, it is very rare that positive thinking and affirmations can get through the layers of self-protection, if you will, erected by fear. These layers of protection hide the fear so that it can be very hard to reach, let alone be aware of. If we simply try to talk ourselves out of fear, we will fail to reach down to the deeper layers where the fear lives on, untouched by our conscious thoughts, no matter how positive. It’s only when the fear is of a really superficial nature, or if someone has filled their minds so thoroughly with the positive thoughts that there is no room, so to speak, for the fear to take hold, that affirmations can really take root. This is very rare, because we are highly invested in our fear-based beliefs. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the root layer, the true source, of the fear, and this is readily accomplished with an exercise in the program called “Digging for gold: Finding your core fear”. Absent of this, positive thinking and affirmations are like, as one of my clients described it, “putting frosting on garbage!”
More About Deconstructing Anxiety
In Deconstructing Anxiety, Pressman provides a new and comprehensive understanding of fear’s subtlest mechanisms. In this model, anxiety is understood as the wellspring at the source of all problems. Tapping into this source therefore holds the clues not only for how to escape fear, but how to release the very causes of suffering, paving the way to a profound sense of peace and satisfaction in life.
With strategically developed exercises, this book offers a unique, integrative approach to healing and growth, based on an understanding of how the psyche organizes itself around anxiety. It provides insights into the architecture of anxiety, introducing the dynamics of the “core fear” (one’s fundamental interpretation of danger in the world) and “chief defense” (the primary strategy for protecting oneself from threat). The anxious personality is then built upon this foundation, creating a “three dimensional, multi-sensory hologram” within which one can feel trapped and helpless.
Replete with processes that bring the theoretical background into technicolor, Deconstructing Anxiety provides a clear roadmap to resolving this human dilemma, paving the way to an ultimate and transcendent freedom. Therapists and laypeople alike will find this book essential in helping design a life of meaning, purpose and enduring fulfillment.
You can purchase a copy of this book on Amazon.
About the author
TODD E. PRESSMAN, Ph.D., is a psychologist dedicated to helping people design lives of fulfillment. He is the founder and director of Logos Wellness Center and Pressman and Associates Life Counseling Center. An international speaker and seminar leader, he has presented at the Omega Institute, the New York Open Center, and numerous professional conferences, including the prestigious Council Grove Conference, sponsored by the Menninger Foundation. He has written dozens of articles, educational programs, and two highly acclaimed books, Radical Joy: Awakening Your Potential for True Fulfillment and The Bicycle Repair Shop: A True Story of Recovery from Multiple Personality Disorder. He earned his doctorate in psychology from the Saybrook Institute and an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, has studied under renowned leaders in the Consciousness movement and Gestalt therapy, and has traveled around the world to study the great Wisdom traditions, from Zen Buddhism to fire-walking ceremonies, providing a cross-cultural perspective of the extraordinary capacities of the mind and spirit. He makes his home in Philadelphia.