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How can we overcome feelings of stress and fear when everything feels so uncertain right now?
Right now, many of us are feeling a barrage of different emotions. We may feel sadness one minute and then anger the next. We may even feel happiness and joy, especially as we’re spending time with our loved ones and enjoying nurturing activities at home (and we may feel guilty about feeling good when the world is struggling).
But one emotion is overriding much of our experience over the last several months is fear.
For many of us, fear is one of the biggest struggles of the Coronavirus pandemic. We’re feeling fear of the future, concerns about our health, and the fear of the unknown. With so much ambiguity and uncertainty right now, many of us feel our anxiety bubbling up. We may wonder if anxiety is an emotion and how we can get those feelings of fear under control.
Anxiety is unfocused fear. Anxiety is fear that doesn’t have anything to attach itself to. It’s often unfounded or untethered, but that doesn’t mean fear—and even anxiety—is “bad” or wrong.
Fear is part of being a human being. Part of our experience right now is evolutionarily built into who we are. If we went back in time to the beginning of humankind, we’d see that the world was perilous. Around every corner, there were predators. We had to struggle to find food. The world was fraught with famine and disease. The very existence of humanity was a struggle.
For early humans, dangers weren’t minor. A tiger could attack at any time. Something as seemingly innocuous as a foot injury could mean imminent death. Eating the wrong plant could kill you immediately.
It was in this sea of uncertainty that our primitive brains and bodies were developed. Our ancestors were those who stayed alive. It was those who had the ability to be anxious—to continually scan for and respond to threats—who survived to later evolve into us. Those without anxiety, who were laidback and indifferent to threats, didn’t make it. Fear and anxiety are built into our existence.
Today, despite the current climate of fear we’re experiencing, our lives are relatively safe compared to those of our ancestors. We don’t need to worry about tigers. If we stub our toe, we can go to the doctor to have it examined. Antibiotics and modern medicine assure that most minor injuries won’t kill us.
But even when life is going smoothly, there’s a sense of unease and a need to stay vigilant. Some of us have a stronger sense of fear and worry than others. We’re more attuned to unrest and feel more displaced by uncertainty.
Now that we have the very real threats of COVID-19, job uncertainty, civil unrest, and more, our fears aren’t staying in the background. They’re right at the forefront of our minds as we face uncertainty. We may feel on-guard, on-edge, and like we’re always in fight or flight mode.
Our brains prefer familiarity. We gravitate toward routine and consistency. We like to know what to expect, and many of us unconsciously or consciously, structure our lives to avoid ambiguity. Even those who know the importance of embracing new experiences and getting out of our comfort zone feel derailed in the current climate.
Nothing is as expected right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen. This is a novel virus and a novel experience. Most of us have never lived through a global pandemic. Even the very few 102-year-olds who survived the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak certainly don’t remember it today. This experience is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
So, of course, we feel anxious; it’s part of being human right now. It’s not wrong that we’re anxious or fearful.
When we stick with the familiar, we may experience a feeling referred to as ontological guilt—the feeling we didn’t make the best choice, or we missed out on the road less traveled.
At the same time, by pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, we do experience some existential anxiety. Fortunately, we can tap into that anxiety and flip it into excitement. Both anxiety and excitement produce adrenaline. We get a rush of adrenaline before we get on a roller coaster or right before we step off a plane. It’s the thrill of discovering something new and previously unknown.
Now, it may seem counterintuitive to think we can turn our fears about a pandemic or worry about losing our job into joy, or even a thrill (most of us don’t want THAT kind of excitement in our lives). But there is a thrill and even excitement when we’re able to do something difficult—when we solve a problem and discover our inner sense of resilience.
When we’re worried about our job, what if we explore the new career possibilities open to us, and reframe this time as an opportunity to take stock of what’s satisfying and what’s dissatisfying about our job situation? Or what if we look at the positives that have come from spending more time with our partner, our children, or appreciating the time we get to spend with friends?
It may seem hard to find the positives or the silver lining right now (and it’s perfectly okay NOT to feel okay). But we can also look back at our strength, our will to survive, and our will to fight, and use it to reframe the sense of dread and despair.
We see and hear everyone discuss the negatives of stress. We’ve all heard, “I’m so stressed out!” or “Ways to avoid stress,” “It’s time to destress,” or “Enjoy a stress-free experience.”
In most cases, we’ve learned to avoid stress at all costs. Stress is bad. Stress is well, stressful, right?
The real issue isn’t so much the levels of stress in our life, but it’s what we think stress means. To some, stress can spell doom and gloom. It can mean our whole world is falling apart. But there’s also eustress. Eustress is good stress. It helps us to create, to solve problems, to operate at our best level. If we’re bored or unstimulated, it may be because we’re missing some of that good stress in our lives. Eustress helps us grow and become strong.
Now, too much stress becomes paralyzing. When we’re overwhelmed and letting our thoughts spiral, we’re leaning into the tension. If we view the stress as a problem and a negative situation that’s permeating our existence, then that’s what it becomes. But if we look at a challenge as an opportunity to solve problems, then we experience positive effects.
The real purpose of fear and stress IS to motivate us. In the days of our ancestors, stress pushed them to get away from the tiger. Fear pushed them to avoid hunger, to proceed with caution, to become aware of their surroundings.
When we feel fear, it’s a powerful sign that there’s something we need to deal with, not freeze from. We may need to seek security, support, or resources. The situation may require someone to help us navigate, but we can identify it and use it to propel us toward seeking a solution.
In the moment, we may feel stuck. There’s a tendency to numb ourselves, to “panic scroll” on our phones, reading the news, and feeling almost paralyzed with fear and stress. But numbing doesn’t help us deal with it. It doesn’t get rid of the fear or the stress, it may temporarily push it off, but it’s still there in the background.
Instead, what if we address our feelings and bring ourselves back to the moment. “Right now, in this moment, I’m okay. I’m feeling afraid of the future. I’m worried about what’s going on in the world, but right now, I’m okay.”
How do we bring ourselves back? One of the best tricks is to use grounding techniques. Tap into your senses. What can you see? What can you hear? Some folks like to find five things they see, five sounds they hear, five scents, five tastes, five textures they feel.
For example, feel the chair against your back. Feel the breeze from the window on your arm. Is there a cup of coffee near you? Inhale the scent of the coffee beans. Feel the warmth from the container on your hands. Let the steam waft up towards your face. Really think of what’s going on around you. Can you hear the gentle sound of the fan in your room? Maybe you can hear some cars driving by in the distance.
These sensory moments can help bring us back from the brink of panic and fear and help us identify with the moment. In these times of uncertainty, it’s really important to be good and kind to ourselves. If you’re feeling fear or anxiety, don’t feel bad. Give yourself space, allow yourself to feel your feelings, and experience them.
Self-care and self-compassion are always important, but right now, they’re especially critical. Nurturing yourself, caring for yourself, and being kind to yourself are essential actions right now. Kindness is something we can all bring into our lives and the world around us.
We will make it through this time of uncertainty and turmoil and emerge stronger. We will learn and grow from the stress and come out more beautiful, more resilient, and wiser than ever before.