As we move toward a new stage of this epidemic, new fears are arising as we contemplate what the world will be like as we emerge from our shelter in place. So much has changed in our world that we are realizing that we will never return to the world we once knew, that there will be a “new normal” that involves the constant threat of the virus surging anywhere in the world. Social distancing and masks have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Many of us are facing economic pressures as jobs disappear or businesses struggle to stay afloat.
There is so much unknown; the future is unclear. Our lack of control in all this is scary—will we be safe going back to work, gathering with family and friends, tending to the business of our lives? When or where will there be more surges of this virus? Will we or our loved ones get sick, be hospitalized, or even die? It is natural to be feeling anxiety and fear.
Here are some suggestions for coming into a healthy relationship with fear so that we can respond to life as it is unfolding now, rather than just react to it:
When you are faced with fear of the unknown, notice how your mind tries to regain control through thoughts and stories about the future. These thoughts, scenarios and stories create more fear as you obsess about what the future may bring; that results in the release of stress hormones. The reality is that you don’t know what the future will bring—that’s especially evident right now. How could we have imagined our world totally shutting down as it has in the past few months? It will never work to try to think our way out of fear.
Instead of letting fear run rampant in your mind, turn your attention within—into your body. When you pay attention to the sensations and feelings that your body is processing in this moment, it is impossible for your thoughts to race into future stories that only generate more anxiety and fear. Notice if there is a particular feeling or sensation that is getting activated in your body—perhaps grief over a loss you are experiencing due to this pandemic, perhaps a tightening of your chest that feels like fear, perhaps a sense of sadness deep in your belly. The body doesn’t lie. Life is flowing through you in this moment. Can you give it your full attention– just for a few moments, in small doses. Take a breath. You will find that you can meet whatever is arising within you (yes, the fear too!) and respond with resilience to the next moment. We have incredible resources for healing within us if we flow with life, rather than resisting it.
When your nervous system is getting overloaded with too much information, consider turning off the news. These days our nervous systems can easily become overloaded with information—particularly from the news. You need information so you know what to do to stay safe with this pandemic but you do not need to be assaulted with disastrous, heart-rending stories day after day. When you overload your nervous system, you can end up with panic attacks, overwhelming anxiety, nightmares, and/or insomnia. Pay attention to how much your nervous system can handle—if you are starting to feel that it is on overload (reacting with a short fuse, feeling on edge, unable to relax, feeling overwhelmed by fear), take a break from the news. When several of my clients recently started to feel overly anxious and fearful, they committed to turning off all news for a period of time. They were amazed at how quickly their bodies relaxed, restorative sleep was restored, the nightmares stopped, and the intense anxiety and fear retreated.
An effective antidote to fear is to open your heart. You can reach out to friends and family to express your caring for them, you can close your eyes and send compassion to those in the world who are suffering, you can gently hold yourself with kindness when you are feeling fearful. Even though the survival instinct (that instigates much of our fear) is very strong in this time of pandemic, you can consciously choose compassion instead of getting lost in the fear. You can choose to expand in your heart, rather than contract in fear. In response, your body relaxes. You feel more at peace. You will feel more empowered knowing that you can help alleviate some of the suffering in the world.
As we face all the unknowns of living in this pandemic, we’re challenged to embrace our fears, insecurities, doubts, inner struggles—our full humanity– with compassion. It’s a process of learning to welcome everything that arises and healing whatever keeps us from responding with resilience to life in this moment. We can then truly celebrate being alive in this body, connected with all of humanity, and walking lighter on this Earth.
Alexandra Kennedy, Psychotherapist, Speaker and Author
Alexandra Kennedy MA MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice and author of Honoring Grief, Losing a Parent, The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss, and How Did I Miss All This Before? Waking Up to the Magic of Our Ordinary Lives. Alexandra has been featured in national media and is a highly sought-after speaker. She has been on the faculty of John F Kennedy University, the University of California Santa Cruz Extension and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. For more information on her work visit www.alexandrakennedy.com.