It’s scary. Like 9/11, we have a new reference point touching everyone on the planet: life before COVID-19 and life after. Regardless if you get it or don’t, the unknowns and secondary consequences are scary. Life before COVID was scary, too, minus the urgency.
Before COVID, we sensed the weight of living on a sick planet. We felt powerless to change the tide of forces affecting our lives for the worst. We normalized the slow spiral down the drain of political divisions, economic inequality, costly health care, deteriorating education, unreliable information, and unsustainable living. We let our existential fear buzz like a refrigerator’s white noise.
COVID innocently shines a floodlight on our curious collective permissiveness. It illuminates silent fear.
Feeling fear’s history
It is hard to feel fear. We do not know what to do with it and are generally unconscious of it. Feeling fear falls on the “bad” list. We de-value, shutdown, deny, numb, avoid, ignore, or disassociate from what feels bad.
The virtues of fear are not bestowed upon us. We learn from a young age to disengage fear. It starts before our little ears first hear, “Don’t be scared.”
It’s evolutionary genius. We would not be here if our ancestors froze in fear of humanity’s torturous actions. Survival of the fittest includes adaptive strategies for burying fear when feeling it can kill us.
Our language reinforces this with innuendoes of shame. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “You can smell the fear.” This latency has led to an epidemic of anxiety. Anxiety is fear knocking at the door with no one willing to welcome it home.
Expressing fear is an act of vulnerability, which is tough when: “It’s a jungle out there.” So vulnerability for many of us equals weakness. We don’t know to experience fear so that it enters our door like a guest who comes, visits, and leaves. Fear lives ungrounded in us until we answer the door.
How to ground fear? We have to feel it instead of thinking it. Feeling fear begins with being aware of physical sensations. Fear travels through our nervous system into our body tissues.
Unfelt fear remains stored there until we get conscious of it. It nags us when left unchecked. Fear is intelligent. It is an informational movement through us, not a static state of being. Our “mindful” gesture of experiencing fear is our grounding.
Digesting emotional truth begins with slowing down to recognize our discomfort. This allows awareness to address fear instead of neglect it. We can track our fear by noticing simple things about our bodies. Breathing shallow or holding our breath are classics. Tightening muscles are another great clue. Pulling up our shoulders, constricting our pelvic floor. Clenching our butt cheeks.
We can regulate ourselves. Restoring the movement of our breath reclaims space that fears shrinks. Breathing into our belly. Taking the effort out of contracting muscles. These restorative movements free up energy to begin to listen to fear’s message.
Fear that is overwhelming requires help. When it’s “too much,” we need someone we trust and feel safe with to share our fear. This might be a wise family member, friend, or practitioner of any healing specialty. Someone who can be a co-regulating body to anchor our emotional overflow.
Time does not heal all wounds. Feelings get tricky when we postpone them. They don’t go away, but backlog. We can find ourselves in situations triggering disproportionate emotional reactions. That is the voice of our undigested past speaking through present-day circumstances. Sometimes the present-day adds another layer of emotional debt to our tab. Yes, COVID is scary, and for many of us, it also hits unconscious fear stored from our past.
There is our reality to our feelings. What is true for us and may not make sense to those around us. Here is our nakedness. Stigmatizing irrational feelings with judgment hinders the vulnerability needed to process them. We need to feel our feelings in relationships, and it has nothing to do with making sense. Being rational is an unrealistic expectation when it comes to fear.
Expressing vulnerability is like leaving our door unlocked. It feels crazy to let this defense down, but without it, we are doomed to self-isolation. Expressing vulnerability waves a white flag that signals safety in relationships. It’s an invitation for intimacy. Intimacy’s embrace is care, compassion, and nurture. Its environment fulfills fear’s real purpose of connection. Intimacy counteracts the mental propensity to isolate, allowing us to bond together.
Up leveling fear
Our habits around fear may have worked in the past but are not working now. We are capable of more as we strive for more. Our relationship with fear needs an upgrade.
We are living with exponential complexity through technology and globalization. Our lives are better for it if we stay accountable. More complexity equals more information, interdependence, and more responsibility to each other. Our intellectual capacity to “figure it out” needs help.
The unfettered nature of fear cuts through complexity’s noise to signal us to change. Fear alerts us to blindspots of “rational” thought. It can save us from the intellectual traps of “normalcy bias,” “herd instinct,” and “optimism bias.” When it has our attention, we need to feel it, not rationalize it away.
The commoditization of our attention has led to an overwhelming pollution of information. Scary stories get our attention. The bombast is less concerned with truth. It numbs our fear while kicking up a ton of emotional dust. We need to learn how to digest information on mass with discernment before it buries us. It is the next step to being a coherent global humanity.
Leveling up means actually feeling our feelings. Digesting our feelings into resolution is complex and requires precision. The practice supersedes this introduction. It is uncomfortable at first and then rewarding with solutions. Worth it if, “A life lived in fear is half lived.”
Ruchi Puri is an obstetrics-gynecology physician and can be reached at her self-titled site, Ruchi Puri, MD.
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