By Jon Caldwell, DO, PhD, Chief Medical Officer
“We are very afraid of being powerless. But we have the power to look deeply at our fears, and then fear cannot control us.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
These days, you don’t have to look very far to witness the powerful effects of fear. Just take a stroll (in your mind) down your local supermarket’s toilet paper aisle. Empty. Why? Plain and simple: fear. The unchecked fear of not having enough toilet paper resulted in the very thing that was being feared: not enough toilet paper. As the saying goes, sometimes what we run from, we run into. Fear isn’t always logical, but it can still control us.
Yet, some of our fears are logical and warranted – it’s understandable that we are experiencing certain fears associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the anxiety associated with COVID-19 can be distilled down to one main overarching fear: powerlessness. For humans, this may very well be the motherload of all fears and coronavirus is the kryptonite to our mind’s incredible power to keep that fear pushed down, out of awareness.
Let me explain. Under typical circumstances, like when the toilet paper aisles are flush with product, our minds do a pretty good job of making us think we are in control, that everything is going to work out, and that we have some degree of power over our circumstances. It’s a bit of an illusion, but it works to keep the fear at bay so that we can go about our daily lives. But with something like coronavirus, the unfettered reality of our actual powerlessness is constantly flashing right in front of us, like a giant neon sign. There’s no escaping it. And if we let it, the fear will control us.
So, what are we to do? Well, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, there is power in looking deeply at our fears. When we encounter fear, the natural tendency is to run away, hide, avoid, numb, check-out, blame, judge, get angry, or let ourselves get swallowed up in the fear. Anything to take us away from looking deeply at the fear itself. And yet, paradoxically, learning to lean into the fear, to get curious about it, and maybe even to embrace it – that’s how we find the power to be freed from its grip.
I invite you to join me in looking deeply at three common fears associated with the coronavirus pandemic (and with being a human in general). We will also explore some techniques to lean into that fear to help loosen its control over us. Warning: This little journey will be outside your comfort zone – it isn’t for the faint of heart – you will be exposed to reality. But there is freedom in learning to live in truth.
Fear #1: Social Disconnect
If there’s one thing that the coronavirus has made clear, it’s that we are social creatures. Our most primitive brain networks are built by, and for, social connection. Importantly, we are wired to reach out and connect with others in times of distress. When we do connect with others – through words of comfort, eye contact, a hand on a shoulder, a warm embrace – we literally have a biological response, at cellular level, that helps to regulate our nervous system. So, in a very real way, social connection reduces fear. Social distancing practices are critical to reducing the rate of infection and ensuring public safety. At the same time, if we aren’t careful, isolating completely from social contact can rob us of one of our most effective ways of managing stress and fear
Learning to Lean In – The good news is social distancing doesn’t mean social disconnect. With some creativity, we can still reach out to experience connection and belonging, which is crucial in keeping fear from controlling us. We are very fortunate to live at a time when technology can facilitate meaningful experiences of connection. But more important than the method of connection is the quality of the connection. This is no time to hold back – it is time to lean in: be vulnerable, get real, say what needs to be said, let go of petty resentments, and remember what matters most in life. When the fear creeps in, notice it, try not to judge it, sit with it a moment, and then reach out and connect with someone in a meaningful way.
Fear #2: Up Close and Personal
Unlike other relatively localized infectious disease outbreaks or natural disasters, this one isn’t happening in a foreign location or to people with a different way of life, language, or skin color. Coronavirus is on everyone’s front step, and this makes it up close and personal. Often, in times of distress, our minds’ natural tendency is to create an “us” and a “them,” and then our mind tries to take comfort in thinking that these kinds of crises don’t happen to us – only to them. However, coronavirus dismantles this coping mechanism because there is no us and them … it’s happening to all of us. The realization that we, and our loved ones, are not immune from this crisis, can intensify the feelings of powerlessness and fear.
Learning to Lean In – Actually, the breakdown of the us/them (false) dichotomy is a gift! It allows us to more fully recognize and appreciate our own humanity. We get to see our place in the great human family – we are no better and no worse than our fellow human beings. We are but flesh and blood, with sorrows and joys, hopes and dreams, just like other people who may have a different way of life, language, and skin color. We begin to see that there is no “them” – only us. We are all in this together. When we look deeply at our common humanity, then our hearts begin to swell with compassion, for ourselves and for others, because we all suffer in similar ways. When we are filled with compassion, fear loses its control over us.
Fear #3: Death Anxiety
I told you we would be journeying outside of our comfort zone! Death is the ultimate sign of our powerlessness. There’s no getting around it. We all know this at some level, but again, in our typical day-to-day lives, our mind does a wonderful job of glossing over this troubling truth. Work, family, entertainment, you name it – we have a million ways to distract us from our powerlessness over death. But during a pandemic like this, each day we are forced to confront the reality of our fragile mortality. And for some of us, we are facing the reality of losing or having lost people we love or being sick ourselves. Additionally, coronavirus comes with the cruel possibility of dying alone. This really gets the fear going. But wait, let’s look deeper at this fear.
Learning to Lean In – There are two important ways to lean into the reality of life’s impermanence: First, quiet the mind, cultivate a moment of peace, and gently remind our deeper selves that we never really had much control over death anyway. That’s the truth. Life has always been fragile, unpredictable, and impermanent. Now, before you get too overwhelmed by this thought, let this truth open the door to a second important way to lean into the fear of death: Because life is fragile, each moment is precious. This can be a powerful means of finding freedom from the fear of death. When we watch the news or listen to a challenging story, and we hear the fearful knock-knock of death anxiety at the door, we can lean in by opening up to the amazing gift of the life that is here, in this moment. We can plant ourselves in the rich soil of present-moment awareness and let gratitude for being alive grow up all around us. We don’t have to let this precious moment of “aliveness” get swallowed up in the fear.
These strategies for leaning into fear are underpinned by some basic techniques or skills that can be practiced and learned: 1) Pay attention and learn to notice how fear shows up in the body and mind, 2) Instead of pushing fear away or becoming overwhelmed by it – summon the courage to look deeply at it, 3) Develop skills to quiet the mind and stay present when faced with fear, and 4) Connect with our truth, with compassion, and with other people. The cultivation of these skills takes time and practice – but, as it turns out, many of us have some unscheduled time these days.
In troubling circumstances, we can easily live in extremes when it comes to fear – on the one end, attempting to escape and resist the fear and, on the other end, unmitigated rumination and proliferation of the fear. However, there is middle ground where truth can be found – and that truth holds the promise of freedom from fear’s grip. The challenge is that we must lean into the fear to find the truth. This is a courageous endeavor. It’s not easy, but the potential results are worth it. When we are not controlled by fear, we are freed up to be our better selves – more present, connected, and compassionate. That’s exactly what we need in uncertain times like these.
For more help overcoming fear during these unprecedented times, join us for our new online workshop, Surviving Social Distancing: Reconciling the Traumatic Impact of a COVID-19 World. This 4-day intensive is for anyone feeling anxiety over the state of the world and struggling with the lack of connection during extended stay-at-home orders. This online workshop takes place each week from Tuesday-Friday, 9 am-2 pm PST. Bonus: Dr. Jon Caldwell will be teaching mindfulness techniques as part of the programming! To register, contact us today.