“In the silence you don’t know, you must go on,
I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Anyone who’s not scared right now is either an innocent child, an adult in denial, or someone unclear on the concept of a pandemic. As shrinks say, “Fear is appropriate affect for what we’re going through.” Among so many other things, we’re afraid of the real and present danger of being infected with the virus. We’re afraid for ourselves, our families, our friends. We’re afraid of the unknown. And much is unknown.
Most of us have become hyper-vigilant. To a cough. To fatigue. To breathlessness on the stairs. To a hot flash in the night. Many people I know were sick in January or February with terrible, lingering, flu symptoms, even though they’d had their flu shots. Now they’re wondering if they had COVID-19. If so, are they immune? If so, did they infect another? If so, are their lungs now compromised? Too many questions and too few answers put us all on edge. The problem is, there are no clear, concrete answers. We’re in uncharted territory and uncertainty brings more fear.
I’ve been writing this post in my head for days, and avoiding sitting down to write it for just as long. I’m afraid, as well. Of course I am. And to sit down and put words on paper felt daunting. But I awoke early this morning thinking, This is the day. Even then, I avoided. And then felt my chest tightening and panic. Can I breathe? Do I have it? I made myself a cup of tea, then let it go lukewarm as I finally meditated for ten minutes. I was counting first, then felt grief welling up and I cried. Finally, I became aware of the birds chirping outside my window. The woodpecker busy on the catalpa in my front yard. And I thought, Life goes on. When I opened my eyes, I knew I could write.
As I’ve already said, fear is an appropriate response to what’s happening right now. It can help us comply with orders to Shelter in Place. It can help us to be mindful of safe practices such as thorough and frequent hand washing and social distancing. It can help save our lives and those of the people we love.
Fear, however, can also be dangerous. It can be immobilizing. It can manifest in panic attacks. It can turn into real paranoia. It can ignite fight or flight responses. It can stress the body in ways that put us at risk for stroke or heart attacks. It can lead us to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating and/or consuming too much alcohol. Combined with anxiety and depression, fear can create a lethal cocktail that tips one over into suicidal or homicidal ideation.
So, how do we manage fear in appropriate and healthy ways? First of all, we acknowledge it. Speak it aloud to ourselves, “I am terrified!” Write about it in our journals. Share it with others in ways that don’t spark more fear, but help unite us in our humanity. We’re all in this together.
I’m continuing to observe what helps and doesn’t help me. Spending too much time alone in my head is never good. As author Anne Lamott says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try to never go there alone.” When I find myself going to worst case scenarios, I try to break the loop before it starts. We have enough to be anxious about in the here-and-now without adding anticipatory anxiety to the mix.
More than ever, I’m finding work fulfilling, because, to do my job and help others, I have to get out of my own head. Moving my body also helps keep anxiety and fear at bay, so I continue to exercise online. I’m also connecting with others and participating in online social activities over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom. Coffee dates and happy hours over Zoom can bring us face to face with our friend and family members in safe ways—decreasing our feelings of total isolation. I’m grateful I have the ability to do these things.
Continue to look for activities that feed your soul and make time for them. Express yourselves through art, writing, music, cooking. Connect with others, even if only over the phone or by text. Share what works for you with others. If possible, avoid whatever makes things worse.
We can’t make our fears go away, so don’t even try. But, by using them as guidelines to healthier practices, we can control them and empower ourselves. And, in the time of corona, self-empowerment is critical for survival.
Years ago, a patient shared this quote with me. It’s so appropriate now, I’ve printed it out and hung it on my refrigerator along with my photos of family and Ada’s art.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
~ Frank Herbert, Dune
Thanks, again, so much, to all of you who are reading my posts. I’m honored that you’re following me, and grateful my words are helping. Stay home and stay safe. We are all in this together.
Blessings, gratitude, and much love to all of you.