For those of us who worry, the constant flow of bad news quickly triggers feelings of fear.
I went on a news fast this week. I felt weary of the commentary and conjecture about the terror and tragedy in our country and around the world. Nightmares that I was being hunted and hiding disturbed my sleep, flooding me with fear.
So I cut off my constant newsfeed, avoided news-laden emails, the television, radio and social media sites. If you haven’t tried this, it is much harder than it used to be to keep news out of your face. Believe me, I still heard enough to stay informed. I didn’t do this to avoid feeling but to dissipate the chronic terror that actually stops me from feeling. But I needed a minute. You know?
What is the connection between our feelings of fear and worry and how can we stay healthy in a fear-infested society?
Fear is defined as a feeling caused by something that is deemed dangerous, painful or threatening. Worry is a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.
In the body these two feelings wrap and intertwine around each other with fear inciting worry and worry pressing away fear.
No matter what frightens you, you know that you are not fully yourself when you are living in fear.
Fear can manifest as feeling immobilized and unmotivated. Other times fear turns outward in anger and rage. Worse, over time fear takes its toll on all aspects of life. The negative impact of chronic fear on the body, mind and lifestyle is well documented. Fear can be literally sickening.
The thing is, it is hard to know if what you’re feeling is worry or fear and what to do about it. I like to think of it this way, worry usually has a job or purpose. In this way, worrying serves to keep you from thinking about deeper fears or to keep others from seeing parts of you that feel shameful. Fear on the other hand is a pure sense of danger.
Here are some ways to address both fear and worry you can use today to help you stay present, calm and connected to others.
1. Remember to reserve your judgements when feeling fear.
Fear has a laser focus that can confuse and when you feel strong fear, it is not a good time to make judgements about the reality of you, others or your world.
Let me give you an example. About 20 years ago I was alone in my house. I was bustling about trying to do 50 things at one time. I ran to check the clothes in the dryer. After heading down to the basement (the dryer was on the second floor), I opened the freezer. At that moment I instantly wondered why I was looking in my freezer and remembered the dryer! Oops! I turned to dash up the stairs and resume my original task.
Bang! Something slammed me in the head, right near my temple. Hard. I heard crackling sounds in my skull and dropped to the floor, my hands over my head, quivering. Someone had just hit me with something like a bat, I thought. I was terrified. After a while I slowly, cautiously looked up, imagining the person waiting there, bat poised in hands, ready to finish me off. Instead I see a painted pole, one of many that holds up the first floor. I had run full-force into the pole. No bat, no intruder, just a black eye and a sheepish grin from me.
How quickly fear takes over, confuses us and reacts. Of course it’s trying to save your life. But it isn’t always accurate or thoughtful.
What can you do when you live with a sense of fear and do not find a immediate safety as I did in that basement?
2. Find some safety in your body without needing an explanation in your mind.
Perhaps when you look at your fears, you have real proof of harm. Then it’s time to act. But for the majority of fears we experience from the daily news, the first question is whether you feel safe in the moment. It is important to be clear about your immediate safety, not to lull yourself into complacency, but to be able to take the time you need to find clarity about your situation and your response. This is not an easy task. It will take patience and effort. But it's worth taking some time because you cannot be proactive and wise when life seems scary. We all know how it feels to make less-than-reasonable changes when we're afraid.
Did you avoid movie theaters after a theater shooting? I did. There is really no evidence that avoiding movies will help, but certainly fear would say so.
Has the thought of going to a festival has seemed less appealing this summer? It makes sense, yes. But is it real? There is almost zero correlation between going to a festival or gathering and being shot.
It’s like flying after a plane crash. No matter the evidence at hand, it’s far harder to believe you are likely safe after a tragedy or act of terror. As a whole, society tends to react from fear and do ridiculous things like search and pat down elderly travelers, stop anyone who looks Indian, bar knitting on an airplane and arm classroom teachers.
When you are feeling fearful, slow your thoughts down as much as possible.
It’s important to feel personal safety in your body verses rationalizing how something could “never happen to me” in order to feel safer. Unfortunately, this practice can inadvertently lead to blaming victims for being who or where they were. If you stuff your fear, your worry will create false walls between yourself and your community. Ultimately, this pseudo-safety creates more fear and worry.
3. Comfort your fears.
When we feel immediate fear, the most natural thing to do is try to quickly push it away. Unfortunately, this practice tends to increase our fear and create more worry.
Here is a great way to handle a fear after any potential imminent danger has passed.
I often learn the most profound insights from my toddler granddaughter. Last week, after my nightmare in which I was being chased and was very frightened, I woke with a start. My heart was pounding and I could feel the fear in my chest. As I took a deep breath and realized I was in my own safe bed, I heard my granddaughter’s voice, “Hold you.” She had actually been saying this to me throughout the previous weekend. Reaching her little hands up to be lifted, oblivious of pronouns, she would request me to hold her. No amount of backache could ever make me say no. And what a gift!
As I heard her little voice in my head that night, I envisioned holding her and also holding the part of me that was feeling such fear. I could feel the calm settle in my body. “I am safe. I’ve got you. Hold you.” From the mouth of a babe, such wisdom.
Comfort your fear. Hold it and allow it to calm while connecting to you. No need for worry after that.
4. Recognize your daily worry as what it is.
It’s not uncommon to act from worry and fear and believe we are not doing so. Worry can sound reasonable and fool us with its logic. Although paying attention to urgent, anxious or worried feelings can feel daunting. Being aware when worry and deeper fear is your motivation can create the clear-headedness needed in this complex world. “Blind fear” is not just a saying. It is real. It is harder to see ourselves and others when we do not address it.
Here’s a quick list of little cues that tell you worry and fear might be at the root of your everyday behaviors.
- You avoid people based on their appearance, culture, geography, etc.
- It’s hard to witness other’s pain
- Frequently you give more than you have
- Other’s generosity or kindness feels uncomfortable or threatening
- Your “care” for others is not welcomed by them
- Anger arises often and easily
- No one gets you
There are more, but if you see yourself in any of these, it is a good place to start.
5. Embrace your worry.
Worry is never trying to harm you. But is sure feels bad. The more you can welcome parts of you that worry and get really clear about the deeper fears beneath them, the more you can help yourself to feel relaxed, integrated and energized.
Worry in the body is a strong feeling. It can sap your strength but it keeps on going. You can harness this energy a bit more every day just by listening to the worry with a compassionate ear. Write down what your worry says without challenging or believing it. Breathe and allow your worry to hear that it is not alone. You are there.
What would life feel like if you released worry and addressed fears?
Who would you be without the constant worry? People might not recognize you, right? Some people feel like they would be flat, uninterested, fake and numb. These qualities can seem like the opposite of worried.
But here’s the truth: there’s a whole world of feeling you may have when worry is not in charge of you. You can be interesting and think critically, take risks and care about life. The opposite of worry is not blandness. It is freedom, vulnerability, connection and bravery.
Where will your curiosity about your fears and worries lead you this week? When you do your emotional work from the inside out, you will have far more options for being in the world outside.
Yes, the world is full of fear. But there is so much goodness just waiting for us to show up. How will you show up this week?
For more help to calm your worries, check out my book!