Hello dear friends!
Let’s talk about FEAR.
What keeps you up at night? What makes your insides flip and flop and churn? What is it that you are most afraid of?
For people living with long-term health conditions, the F-word can be a huge part of our lives; the ever-present shadow following us wherever we go. The murky darkness around every corner; the cloud that hangs above our heads day in and day out.
Yes, I admit it. I am a fear addict. And it is partly because I allowed my illness to carve out those negative belief patterns over so many years and I never tried to stop the progression. I gave in to the voices of my gremlins, staying trapped inside my own cage of fear, mentally projecting disaster dare I ever step to the other side of those bars.
It’s honestly hard to explain the depth of the fear that is cracked wide open when you live with a chronic illness. It’s like taking a step forward and flinching every time in anticipation of universal punishment. Except that those forward steps can take the form of anything big or small: accepting a new job, going out for coffee with a friend, even taking a shower. One seemingly insignificant daily action can bring pain and suffering, and that cycle can create a seriously deep cavern of terror.
The feeling that our bodies can and will betray us is something deeply rooted in our psyche; it rips the rug out from under us in a world where we believe that we should be able to rely on at least this one thing. Chronic illness gives with one hand and takes with the other- we are more in tune with our bodies than before, noticing more sensations and responses, but we are also more disconnected and wary, always waiting for the next symptom or flare-up to smack us down. This mistrust of our own physical selves, I think, is a roadblock to our healing, but also quite difficult to overcome.
This idea is at the foundation of one of the biggest fears that I face: the fear of relapse.
Before three years ago, I was on the road to recovery and while I had somewhat plateaued, I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until my major relapse on New Years Eve of 2012 that that unique fear took root in my brain, and it has guided my life ever since. There’s nothing quite like having your entire life crumble in front of your eyes; losing your job, your income, your independence, your hope for a future…those are primal things and therefore cut deeply. Once you’ve been there, you will automatically do everything in your power to avoid going there again; we can’t help it- it’s an evolutionary aversion to pain and suffering. When we listen to our fear and avoid certain things that we believe will lead to certain outcomes, we are protected in a way. This activates the reward centers in the brain, and the aversion becomes stronger.
But the trick is to not let it cripple you.
And I’ll be the first to admit that I let myself become crippled by my fears. They kept me indoors instead of playing in the mountains or exploring the rivers. They made me decline social invitations and turn down vacations. They pulled all my energy inwards instead of letting me give it freely to people I loved, straining my relationships and support system. They said no to job opportunities and yes to dependency. My fears hissed “no” when my soul was really whispering “yes”.
And this is not to be confused with self-care, by the way. I am a huge advocate for making you and your healing needs a priority, and sometimes that comes in exchange for other things. But it’s about the intention. Are you turning down happy hour because it would truly give you joy to curl up with a book instead or it is because you’re afraid of opening up to your coworkers and risking rejection? Are you booking a massage because you worked hard this week and deserve to unwind or because you’re afraid that if you don’t “flush the toxins from your body” that you’ll get even sicker?
By now, I can distinguish between the two, and try to examine the thoughts behind my actions before I move forward with them. But it took me a lot of practice.
So let’s get real for a minute. What am I really afraid of?
Never getting better. Always being a burden to my loved ones. Never being independent. Always feeling less than human. Never being able to travel and see the world. Always having limitations. Never being able to hold down a job. Always being afraid.
If you’ll notice, I used the words “never” and “always”, which are two of the most common words in the language of fear. Fear only thinks in extremes. And if you use these words enough, they start to shape the rest of your self-talk.
Many of us get stuck in the whirling fear-aversion cycle. We experienced something bad in the past and were imprinted with the emotional stamp of that moment. As we move forward, our brains can’t help but remain focused on that event, even though it’s in the past and we continue to experience the memory of fear. Then we project those fears into the future (a.k.a. anxiety) and spin stories in our minds of scenarios where everything goes badly again and again and again.
This explains why people with chronic physical challenges also tend to have high levels of anxiety. But breaking this cycle is important for everyone!
But how the hell do you pull out of this? Honestly, it’s a learning process. I haven’t mastered all my fears and exist in some blissful dreamland. Nobody does, even if they say differently. Getting a hold on your fear addiction can be challenging and takes practice, but we’re all in this together!
Here are some steps you can take to start loosening the grip of fear on your life:
1. Name your fears
It’s a simple first step, but one that many people like to skip over. Psst- don’t skip this one! Take a few minutes to identify and name your fears. Write them down in your journal. Really try to dig deep, and doing this along with a therapist can be very helpful. Can you identify what it is you’re actually afraid of? Is it dependency? Loss of identity? Death itself?
Write them out and call them by name.
2. Create mental space
Our minds can get spinning awfully fast sometimes, blending thoughts and feelings and sensations into a tornado of static confusion. This is where mindfulness comes in. If you can take a few moments to step back and separate the pieces, it will help you handle them more effectively. I’ve found solid results with a regular meditation practice, but even a few minutes here and there can be helpful. You can easily work with a mala bracelet to count breaths or repeat mantras no matter where you are.
Headspace has a wonderful series on anxiety, where you will learn to sit back and observe as your thoughts and feelings roll in, allow them to be there, and then watch them pass on by. But any meditation program will work!
3. Get into your body
You may say, “silly, I’m already in my body!” but are you really? Most of our lives are spent up inside of our heads, and we lose track of our physical selves and our connection to our environments. Whenever you feel yourself getting scared or anxious, take a time out to check in. Place your hands on your abdomen and feel yourself breathing. Go outside and dig your bare feet into the grass or dirt. Drop into child’s pose or downward dog. Give yourself a little scalp massage or rub your favorite lotion on your skin.
Grounding into your body and into the earth is a wonderful way to stem the tide of fearful thoughts and reconnect with your higher self and bigger purpose.
4. Calm your environment
This isn’t necessarily related to any particular fear, but is more about reducing the high-stress stimuli that is bombarding your brain. When you are constantly surrounded by noise, mess and pressure, it makes it so much harder to break the cycle of anxiety. So take stock of your home or workplace. Are there sounds that you can soften or block out? Could you change the lighting to be softer? Can you incorporate some aromatherapy or perhaps some wall décor that brings you joy?
Try to pay attention this week to everything in your environment and how it affects your body. It’s all interconnected, and the more peaceful your surroundings are, the more you’ll be able to greet your fears when they arrive.
5. Dig deep
There are lots of options out there in the self-help and alternative healing worlds, and I encourage you to find some techniques that work for you. If you haven’t already, go check out Byron Katie’s The Work- all you need is right there for free on her website. Free-form journaling can also be a good place to start. Emotional freedom technique (EFT or "tapping") can also be great and bridging the emotions and the physical body, and has been effective for a lot of people in letting go of negative thought patterns, breaking addictions, and creating more calm.
If you work with a therapist or energy healer, now is the time to let them help you walk through your fears. You don’t have to do this alone!
6. Do it anyway
Traditional psychology would call this “exposure therapy” or the idea that a fear can be conquered by repeated small exposures to the thing that is feared. Sometimes life will hand you circumstances that kind of force this therapy on you, such as a sudden divorce, accident, or job loss, but most of the time you have to face it yourself. I advise that you start small and work up to bigger things. This may be taking a trip by yourself, or signing up for a new class. It could be ending a toxic relationship, or simply trying a new food.
What are your fears and how can you take a step into them instead of away from them?
Fear addiction is a very real thing, and can seriously hamper your life whether you live with a chronic illness or not. But most importantly, it’s never too late to retrain your brain to get out of the disaster scenario whirlpool!
So friends, what fears are you holding on to? And what would your life look like without them?
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~