What Fear Does to Us. And How to Cope in 2021    

“I’m afraid.”

Two small words with a really big meaning, right?  Words that we are often hesitant to say.  Or more to the point: Afraid to say.

It seems like the word fear has popped up a lot lately.  The political situation.  The pandemic.  Just two name a couple of the latest reasons to experience fearful thoughts lately.

My clients often talk about another reason for fear.  Their medical diagnosis.  I most often hear this from newly-diagnosed clients, who are still processing their diagnosis and what it means to them.  They project themselves into the future, how their status will affect their life, their relationships, how effective the medications will be in treating their condition.  Issues like disclosure and medication effectiveness may bring up fearful thoughts in individuals who are more experienced in living with their chronic condition.

If I was going to summarize the cause of the fears I discuss with my clients, I would summarize it in one word: Uncertainty.  Humans are wired to know what’s ahead in our lives.  And in the absence of knowing, fear stands ready to jump in and take over.


Don’t Deny Your Fear.  Instead, Face It Down

You’ve probably also heard the immortal words of Franklin D Roosevelt: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

It seems to me that we humans are afraid of fear.  As Roosevelt implied, we can become so overwhelmed by fear that we become immobilized.

But I think that’s not the only reason we are afraid of fear.  We are afraid to admit how afraid we are because, if we do, we may think this will make it more likely that whatever we are afraid of will actually happen, that our fearful thoughts will somehow invite the bad thing into your life.  That’s called superstitious thinking.  It’s another version of “don’t think about it and it will go away.”  Yes, denial.

And I think we are afraid to admit to having fear because that would mean not having a “positive attitude.”  How many times have you been told by others to stay positive, or told yourself that?  And as a result have you called the positive thinking police on yourself and denied your feelings?

So often, my clients will say something to me like “I shouldn’t be afraid.”  Or “I can’t let anyone know I’m afraid.”  Here’s my response: “When something scares us, we feel afraid.”  I say that because fear is a normal human emotion.

I am going to quote Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books.  He said it best: “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”  I would argue that when you’re afraid of being afraid, you set up a conflict within yourself: You against your own feelings.  And the more you deny feelings, the more power you give them.

Does that mean I think it is a good thing to be so overwhelmed by fear that you are unable to make a decision or otherwise take care of yourself?  Of course not.

Chronic conditions bring up lots of fears, from the moment you receive your diagnosis, to beginning and maintaining your treatment regimen, to contemplating the road ahead.  These fears all fall under the umbrella of the biggest fear of all.  Again, that word is uncertainty.  Humans don’t do very well with uncertainty.  We’re wired to be in charge.  Chronic conditions teach us that we don’t have all the control.


Seven Steps Toward Coping With Fear

No control?  That’s scary.  No denying that, right?  So what do you do about that fear factor?  Here’s what:

Let yourself feel the fear.  It’s one of a whole range of emotions that presents themselves when you are first diagnosed and keep popping up along the road ahead.

Don’t let fear be an elephant in the room.  Talk about your fear with your loved ones.  And while you’re at it, let them talk, too.   Get and give support.

Let your fear empower you.  Fear can be motivator to take good care of yourself, to stay compliant, to work closely with your health care providers.

Flood your fear with facts.  When you have a gap in your information, your mind has a way of creating stories to fill in the gap.  Usually the worst possible scenario.  So stay informed.  Know exactly what you’re dealing with.

Remind yourself that life is uncertain.  But while bad things can happen, so can good things.  Be open to surprise.

Keep your support system close.  Reach out to people in your life who can listen without judging you, who can help you to keep your perspective when life feels overwhelming.  Support is power!  Consider bringing a mental health professional into your support network – we’re here to help you cope with those fearful feelings.

Listen to your fear.  Imagine that fear is standing outside your door.  It keeps ringing the bell.  Then it sends you a text.  Followed by an email.  You’re staying up day and night, trying to keep it away.  Finally, you throw up your hands and say, “Okay fear, come on in.  Let’s talk this out.”   You might be surprised to find that it’s a relief to stop hiding from your fear and see what you can learn from it.

Think of fear as a messenger.  And identify the message.  Stay adherent?  Make educated decisions?  Be grateful?  Stop trying to be in control?  Do some planning for the future?  Think of that message is a little gift your fear brings to you, if you’ll only stop pretending it’s not there and give it some attention.

You and your fear.  Yup, it’s normal.  So let it in.  Take it for a walk.  Listen for the message.  Use your fear to empower you to take the best possible care of yourself.