Facing our Fears
Scan the headlines and it may seem clear that we’re living in scary times and have every reason to be fearful. But zoom in on your own experiences and you may find most of it is unchecked perception.
Well, I avoided it for almost 3 years, but last week I finally caught Covid. I’m pretty careful, still wearing a mask if I’m going to be in a situation where I can’t stay 6 feet from other people or if I’m going to be indoors for more than 15 minutes with people I don’t know, so it didn’t occur to me at first that it could be Covid.
The symptoms hit me sort of out of the blue as I was standing in a mostly empty Target, buying my grandson a gift card for his birthday. My throat started hurting and I felt a little dizzy and I thought I might be getting sick, which is so unusual for me because I rarely get sick. By the time I got home 15 minutes later, my stomach was upset, I was starting to ache all over and I thought I had the flu. My daughter pointed out that I had all of the symptoms of Covid, so I took the home test I still had from the bad old days, but the results were invalid because the stupid thing had expired.
So back out to a store to buy a new Covid test, which indeed showed positive. I have always assumed I would catch it at some point because I think we all will, eventually. So I wasn’t shocked at having contracted it, but I realized Covid hasn’t felt like a threat for me in so long, I’d forgotten what you were supposed to do once you caught it.
Several friends immediately told me to get on Paxlovid and that this wonder drug would knock out the symptoms immediately, so I went on my healthcare system’s website to schedule an e-visit. The first e-visit available with my physician was February 6th. I think it was safe to assume that I would either be well or hospitalized by that date, so I looked for alternative support. That’s when I came across the notice that Paxlovid specifically is not available through e-visits.
Hmmm. So if you have a highly contagious disease, you cannot use telehealth from the safety of your home, but have to go in to a hospital full of sick people in order to try to qualify for a helpful drug, potentially infecting them and exposing yourself to who knows what while your immune system is under attack. Interesting.
I searched for alternatives, filling out three screens of questions related to the current triad of misery, Covid, flu and RSV. I answered all of the questions wondering why I had to go through this when I already knew what I had when I arrived at the final question. Have you tested positive for Covid in the last 5 days? Seriously? Why wasn’t that the first question on the survey? But I know there’s no point in asking why, so I continued to the next screen which informed me that for most people, it would clear up in a few days and I should get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.
To make a long story a little shorter, as I continued to try to pursue relief, it turned out that a) I’m no longer considered high risk because I’ve been off the corticosteroids for my PMR for over a year and b) I’m not 65 so don’t qualify as high risk for age. No Paxlovid for me.
I immediately saw the good news in this, which was that I’m too young and healthy to need a drug that would relieve my miserable symptoms. But, what to do about the symptoms? I went back to the store to get cold or flu medicine only to find the shelves empty. Yet another shortage, yay. That’s when I surrendered and just hunkered down to suffer it out.
I worked some because I do better keeping my mind busy versus laying around focusing on all of my misery and it dawned on me that my sister had mentioned a couple of months ago that she might visit in February. Now I had to focus on not fretting over the disastrous state of the guest room which I could do nothing about while sick. It’s become the catch-all for everything that has no permanent place to go. And it needs to be painted. And that’s when the prepper closet popped into my head.
I am probably the most opposite of a hoarder a person can be, but the prepper closet is a little scary. I call the closet in the guest room a prepper closet but first, there are no weapons and second, it sprang from the pandemic shutdowns and shortages. If I could find Kleenex, paper towels or toilet paper, I bought them so there are a lot of paper products taking up the floor space and bottom shelves. The entire timeline of masks is on display like a museum exhibit, from bandanas to cloth masks to hospital masks to the coveted N95s. When antiseptics were nowhere to be found, I bought a bottle of 180 proof tequila as a disinfectant in case of injury. Over time, various forms and weird brands of disinfectants and hand sanitizers were added, along with many containers of Clorox wipes.
Then there are the Meals, Ready to Eat or MRE boxes, which were really for the earthquake kit, but added just in case the stores never restocked. The rest of the shelves are full of canned goods, bottled water, candles, and first aid supplies. It looks like a prepper closet for end of days.
The prepper closet is a clear representation of my fear that erupted when the world shut down. The question is, when is it safe to let it go? If the pandemic never ends and there are continuous shortages, do I need to keep all of this stuff? Is it healthy or neurotic? It was a stark reminder of just how scary those early days were of the epidemic and the effect it had on our psyche.
My prepper closet is just one example of how many of us may be hanging on to something that needs to go, even if it makes us feel safe or secure. Have you ever stayed in a relationship long past its expiration date because it felt safer than moving back out on your own? Ever stayed in a job that makes you miserable because it gives you a sense of security that at least you’re employed? Once we find something that makes us feel safe or secure, we’re quite reluctant to let it go.
In practicing mindfulness, we learn to accept that nothing is permanent. Everything passes, from events to people to our own thoughts. This allows us to avoid clinging tightly to things and instead just enjoy them while they’re here. Or to suffer through them while they last. This could be seen as a way to be truly grateful for something instead of taking it for granted or to ease suffering because we know it will pass.
We run the risk of getting stuck when we become too attached to people or things. New opportunities need space to enter and if we’re clinging tightly to the old, there’s no room for the new and we miss out. Take a few minutes to check in to see if you might have a cluttered home, office or mind, or perhaps a relationship or job that isn’t meaningful anymore that’s preventing anything new from entering or emerging.
Our whole lives are a series of passing phases, from infanthood to childhood to adolescence to the various stages of adulthood and at each phase, we shed the old and ease into the new. We don’t keep our security blanket from infanthood as we mature into the next phase, but we sometimes do hang onto people, situations or things for the same reason, thinking that they can make us safe. But that sense of safety or security doesn’t come from an external source, it comes from our own minds.
When we feel insecure or scared, the ego sends the stimulus to the brain that we’re in danger. The brain then floods our bodies with stress hormones to prepare us to fight or run. If we’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t need to fight or run because we have a prepper closet or a roommate who knows kung fu, or a person who will always love us no matter what, we’re fooling ourselves because we’re giving our power away in the hopes that someone or something will save us from whatever we’re afraid of.
To be clear, we could perceive life as quite frightening these days. Everything from climate disasters to egg shortages to inflation can feel scary. There was another mass shooting here over the weekend where 11 people were killed while celebrating the Lunar New Year. That heartbreaking incident is the 36th mass shooting in the US in 2023 and January’s not even over. But for each of these events, there are many, many more events that are not scary. Where billions of people are safe each day. Where people are kind and considerate to others. Where most people are not breaking the law.
We can’t avoid seeing or hearing about fearful things in the world and feeling afraid is part of being human. It’s a survival instinct that is meant to keep us safe. But most of what is causing us fear is not in fact a situation where we are in direct danger. The tragic shooting this weekend is not a threat to me, for example. I feel sad and angry about it. I feel enormous empathy for the victims and their families and friends. But I don’t let my mind extrapolate out to that place where nowhere is safe for anyone. Massive flooding around the globe this winter is not going to sweep me personally away, despite the way the news media reports it. For people directly affected, these things are of course a cause for real fear. But for most of us, the fear is a generalized sense of the world not being safe.
We can learn to face our fears instead of turning to external sources for a sense of safety and security. We can look directly at our fear during meditation for example. Consider keeping eyes open, sit in a comfortable position and bring to mind something causing fear. As the feelings of fear rise up, instead of resisting them, simply allow yourself to feel however you feel, observing the thoughts and sensations that are occurring. Try not to cling to the thoughts or emotions. Just notice each one as it presents itself and then allow it to pass. You can also practice breathing in safety and breathing out fear. With each exhale, you release a little of the fear through your breath. This may need to be repeated multiple times and if at any point there’s too much discomfort, simply stop and breathe slowly, reregulating your system.
While working through fear in meditation is quite valuable, it’s equally important to develop methods we can incorporate in our daily life to work through fear. Pay attention to blame showing up. Beating ourselves up when we feel fearful isn’t helpful. Try to suspend self-judgment. It’s a normal human response to feel fear, so there’s no reason to self-blame or shame.
Be kind to yourself and practice self-care. Fear thrives when we’re tired or pushing ourselves too hard, so take time for yourself when needed. Celebrate small victories. Overcoming small fears is progress, so give yourself a pat on the back or a real reward when you deal with a cockroach or have that dreaded conversation with someone or open a notice from the IRS as soon as it arrives. As you build confidence in overcoming small fears, you’ll find more strength in facing the bigger ones.
Try to be curious about your fear. When we avoid or tamp down our anxieties, it tends to increase our fear, not alleviate it. So take a look at it with curiosity – where did it come from, when did it begin, is there anything meaningful about it? And perhaps the most important question, is it real? And always, if it becomes too uncomfortable, simply stop. We’re always in charge of where we allow our minds to go.
By hanging on to everything I could possibly need in the event of an earthquake or pandemic gives me a false sense of security. Sure, I’m prepared. But what if instead it’s a fire or flood, both good possibilities now in California? All of that stuff won’t do me a bit of good. And how much stuff does it take to be safe enough? I’m not sure, but these insights are telling me it’s time to dismantle the prepper closet. I’ll keep a normal disaster kit so that I’m prepared to survive for a few days if we lose all municipal services which is the prediction in case of a major earthquake, but I don’t need to be armed with a closet full of stuff for a potential Armageddon. Instead, I’ll make room for my sister, if she comes, to hang up her clothes. And if she doesn’t’ come, I’ll have a place to put all of that stuff I’ve deposited in the guest room.
This might be a good time to take an inventory of any fears you’re holding onto. And check behaviors that have been in response to fear, real or perceived that might be keeping you stuck. Wouldn’t it feel great to just open the door wide and let those fears go? We all can, with self-compassion through mindfulness.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.