Moving Forward Through Fear
As we continue to try to move forward, I’ve spent the last week doing something I don’t normally do, which is watch a lot of news. I consistently advocate against watching news because it’s so sensationalized, hyperbolic, and stress-inducing, but I felt that by only skimming the periphery of what’s happening in the world for the past few months, I may not have a full understanding of our current situation. So, I dived in. I watched a variety of sources, from MSNBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News, Axios and local coverage. At the end of my news binge, I felt sad, scared, worried and angry. It took me days to work myself out of a funk, so I again urge you not to watch too much news.
Here’s my take now, from my voyage into darkness. In the U.S., we’re in real trouble. I listened to politicians, analysts, scientists and doctors. Unfortunately, I had to discard the information from most politicians, but boy did I get a stark and blatant reminder that our political system is utterly broken. As for the other experts, it appears we’re going to be living like we are now for quite some time, perhaps a year or two of various stages of restrictions or partial shutdowns related to the pandemic. Since I’m already tired of it, as I’m sure many of you are, that’s pretty distressing to really accept. But regarding the pandemic, there is at least an end in sight. At some point, it will be one of our regular viruses, like the flu, and it won’t cause all of this chaos. Some day.
News on three other fronts are what generated true fear for me. First, the economic impacts of this are tremendous and are nothing less than devastating for millions of people. Recovery on this front will not end in a year or two. It could take decades to bounce back. The second point of fear for me are signs that our very democracy in the U.S. appears to be at risk, which despite my lack of respect for most politicians, is a very frightening concept at a deeply personal level, which surprised me. I am not very political and haven’t had much faith in our system for years.
The pandemic has only deepened those misgivings, so I thought I would be somewhat apathetic, but in watching the federal private forces tear-gassing veterans and mothers peacefully protesting, the undermining of our postal service that could very well negatively influence the upcoming elections, the continuous attacks on facts as fake news, increased hostility between state and federal governments, and the incredible lack of understanding of this country’s systemic racism, I felt fear not just for myself, but for everyone who is at any disadvantage in this country. I also felt saddened to think of our potential versus where we are.
Finally, our lack of effective leadership and accurate or trustworthy information is alarming and generated feelings of helplessness and frustration. I even felt alone somehow, since it’s clear no one’s going to rescue me, if that makes sense.
So now that I’ve gone all dark on you, let’s relax and take a breath. I think it’s important to do our best to understand the facts at hand so that we can make informed decisions that will best serve ourselves and others. As I sat in a puddle of fear for a couple of days, I didn’t resist the feelings, which is an excellent practice in strengthening mindfulness skills. I literally sat with them. Fear is quite uncomfortable. My heart raced all day and night, my stomach was upset, I kept catching myself clenching my teeth, and I frequently noticed that as feelings of hopelessness would arise, my head hurt and my eyes tightened. I also kept catching myself wishing the feelings would go away. I would then take several deep breaths and focus on accepting that the feelings would go away when they were ready to, and in the meantime, I would experience discomfort.
I was unable to do any real work for about three days. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t even do mundane work tasks. My brain was in fight or flight mode and it was impossible to access my creativity or my wisdom or my planning functions. That brings us right back to the topic at hand for the past few months. We’re in a fearful situation but if we can’t learn to manage that fear, we also can’t move forward.
There are a few things we can do to get fear under better control. First is to recognize that you feel fear. It frequently manifests as anger, so if you catch yourself being mad, take a pause and look at those feelings. It’s fear. I think it’s quite reasonable for us to feel fearful, but again, that doesn’t serve us, so we need to first recognize it, notice how it feels and then try to move out of the fight or flight response that fear generates.
Find something safe. You can observe your fear much more effectively by shifting your perspective to safety. It can be as simple as a mindful meditation, noticing your breath for a few minutes, and then reminding yourself that in this moment, in this very minute, you’re safe. As your body responds to this feeling of safety, the release of fight or flight response hormones begin to slow, allowing you a little space to look at things differently.
I suggest that if you’re experiencing high rates of fear that you schedule a regular practice of breathing exercises several times a day. We’ve done the “inhale and hold for a count of 4 and exhale” breathing many times, as well as 4, 7, 8 breathing. We’ll do that again on the podcast this week, in case you need a reminder.
One of the most important steps in dealing with fear is to acknowledge that our old friend, uncertainty, is at the heart of a lot of it. Yes, millions of jobs are now permanently gone, but millions of new jobs will replace them. We don’t know how or even what, but change will occur and we’ll adapt. As we approach 5,000,000 COVID-19 cases across the world, uncertainty about how long this condition will last are sure to arise, along with the corresponding fear and impatience. Remember that focusing on what we can control helps minimize the stress of uncertainty, so do what you can control to help. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay physically distanced. It sounds so strange to have to keep repeating that, but observing the number of people not doing it tells us we haven’t repeated it enough. I also saw that people are becoming sick and even dying from drinking hand sanitizer. Please, don’t listen to anyone on how to take care of yourself during this pandemic except for legitimate scientists and doctors.
I won’t be delving into the news cycle again for quite a while and I encourage you to avoid it as much as possible. The mental, emotional and physical impact it had on me was shocking. At the same time, it did give me an opportunity, or perhaps even a test, on being uncomfortable. It’s awful, but I can honestly say that accepting it and observing it helped dissipate the discomfort over time and I think that’s a much healthier response to fear than trying to deny it or tamping it down which both harms our health and ensures that at some point, we’ll blow when we can’t hold it in anymore.
Interestingly, we had three local earthquakes last week, one of which really jolted my home. Although I couldn’t prevent my fight/flight response from kicking off, which it did big time in the form of my heart pounding like crazy and my hands shaking for about 5 minutes afterwards, I think because I was already releasing pent up fear from all of the bad news I’d absorbed, my mind didn’t jump to “now what” or “what’s next” or some apocalyptic conclusion about life as I heard from many other people. I experienced it as a typical event, which it is here in Southern California, and I was really able to focus on my physiological response to it, which was actually quite interesting. That’s a lot better response than over-reacting due to already holding a ton of pent-up fear and stress, believe me.
In our last episode, we talked about starting a list of experiences we’ve enjoyed, or not, during the shutdown, whether work or play. This list of contrasts can really help us identify our values and desires. This week, I encourage you to choose just one item from your list and think of any small steps you can take that move you toward what you want. Remember, focus on what you can control. I mentioned that I have enjoyed slower mornings, so my first baby-steps toward making that part of the new me has been to sleep in a little later than normal, sit outside for at least 10 minutes, have my coffee before turning on the computer and doing a mindful meditation. While that sounds very simple, it was not easy the first few days. My habit of late has been to jump out of bed and hit the ground running. But by slowing down, I am giving myself the space to reflect on my upcoming day, set good intentions for what I want to do and to start the day off in a relaxed state instead of stressed. That helps me be more patient, more focused, and perhaps most importantly, more resilient throughout my day. That’s a huge benefit to my well-being considering the circumstances we’re living with.
So, what’s a small step you can take today?