On dealing with fears of the unknown.
(Note: This post was originally published in the spring of 2020, at the start of the pandemic. But the projects and ideas listed here can benefit your life at any time!)
“Every day we get more disturbing news about the virus. What are some of the best strategies to deal with the unknown potentially bad stuff that is coming our way?”
One of my followers posed this excellent question about unknown fears on my Facebook Live Event. I answered it there, but thought it worthy of a more considered blog post as well because it is something almost everyone on the planet is also worried about. We are now starting to realize that we are likely to lose someone close to us that we love dearly. I worry about keeping my own family with two asthmatics safe. So how does one avoid fretting and worrying oneself into an anxious bundle of nerves? How can you carry on calm and confident in the face of the grim reaper? It’s not easy, so I’ve culled some of the best strategies and coaching techniques for you to experiment with and see what works for you.
1. Practice negative visualization.
Imagine the absolute worst possible outcome that you can. Play out your worst fears to their ultimate grisly end. (I find it helpful to write my fears down in a diary or journal so that I can get a hard, objective look at them.) Imagine you lose your job, your loved ones or that you die. What would you do then? This practice originated by the Stoics and was used by the great Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius to enhance his overall happiness. He would imagine losing his wife and children every night, then when he awoke to find they were alive, he was grateful for the fact and rejoiced to see them. (This exercise might help those of you stuck at home with children who are driving you mad!) This also might well prompt you to take some positive, practical action: put that living will in place, update your health proxy, make sure your family knows where your important financial documents are, get your ducks in a row, do a bit of Swedish death cleansing…and so on.
The advantage of practicing negative visualization is that you will be better prepared if the worst should come to pass. You’ve already survived it mentally, making you more resilient and calmer should the worst happen. This enables you to be calm in a crisis. It doesn’t take the pain away, though. You’ll still have to go through that. But far better to be prepared and calm than panicked and anxious in the face of calamity.
2. Practice positive visualization.
Although the Stoics have many fans, I think that once you’ve done your worst-case scenario and devised a plan for getting through it, then move right on to positive visualization. Our thoughts are real and interact with the physical universe so let’s spend most of our time sending out positive, happy and healing thoughts. Let’s visualize what we want to happen, not what we don’t want to happen. Spend some time seeing your friends and family as healthy, strong and fit, easily able to resist and recover from any disease or illness that comes along. When you catch yourself having a negative thought, say silently to yourself, cancel, cancel. Then refocus your thoughts on the positive outcome you desire. If you aren’t sure what to do, imagine creating a movie in your mind and having it turn out with a happy ending. This is positive visualization.
3. Stop listening to the news.
I know, right now the news is very compelling and most of us want to know what is going on, how many more people have died, how many more cases of the virus are in our country or town. But will this actually change your behavior? The one key thing is to stay at home and isolate yourself from human contact as much as possible. If you are already doing that, it is unlikely that more news will make any difference other than to disturb and unsettle you. Some people can easily absorb negative news without becoming stressed or anxious. Not me. I’m very sensitive to negative news and it really bothers me so I have to protect myself from it. I ask my husband to only share what I really need to know so that my thoughts are mainly positive. I deliberately choose to focus on the good things in my life and be grateful for those. Now might be a great time to start that gratitude journal.
4. Laughter is the best medicine.
This strategy is an old one that has well-documented and often extraordinary results as laughing boosts the immune system. One client and his wife host a virtual happy hour every night so they stay connected to their friends while they relax and unwind after work. You might also consider hosting a virtual happy hour for your staff or work colleagues once a week as well. Tell jokes. Watch comedy shows. Laugh and play games with your kids. Watch funny films. Share funny jokes online and Youtube. When faced with a grim reality, laughter makes it easier to get through.
5. Make a desk canopy.
This idea comes from one of my dearest friends, a journalist in Oregon. She typically did all her writing in coffee shops and couldn’t figure out why she was struggling to write at home so she did a bit of research and apparently, the anonymity of coffee shops helps one focus. At home, she is a resource. Mom, where are the scissors? What are we having for dinner? Do we have any milk left? Who ate the last chocolate chip cookie…and on it goes. She made a tent over her computer out of India print tablecloths and hides herself away. And guess what? It works! She is back on form again, writing away. Another colleague literally works inside of a closet!
6. Focus on what you can do now.
We can’t control everything in life. We can only minimize the risks. If you are washing your hands thoroughly, avoiding close contact with most of humanity by staying at home, showering if you have been out and washing clothes at 60 degrees, eating as healthfully as possible, exercising, taking your Vitamin C, D and B’s, you are managing the risk. Now, do something positive for yourself. Do that project you’ve always been meaning to do when you have more time. Pick up an instrument. Study a language. Strengthen your relationships, reconnect with old friends. Discover your personal and emotional needs. Figure out what your true calling or passion in life is. You might just find you come out of this better than before. My kids had gotten into a very unpleasant habit of bickering every morning. Now that they only have each other to play with, they have realized it is better to get along. Small mercies!