by Peggy O’Mara, Editor and Publisher
While grocery shopping at our local food co-op last Saturday, I ran into an old friend. He told me that he’d been walking the aisles in a daze of fear, wondering how much hydrogen peroxide to stock up on for the coming pandemic. Our conversation seemed to calm him down, but later I wondered how many other parents were so terrified.
In response to the recent hysteria about the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, we have created a new online resource section, www.mothering.com/health/swine-flu. Swine flu, however, is just one of many terrifying possibilities. Our challenge as parents is not only worry over swine flu in particular, but rampant fear in general.
The deceptive thing about fear is that, because of the biochemical response that initiates it, at first it feels exciting. In our stressful society, we become accustomed to the high of this adrenaline rush and think it normal. But it’s not. In fact, when our experiences regularly trigger the release of adrenaline, fear can kill us.
When we are fearful or anxious, our muscles need more oxygen and glucose, which means that our heart pumps faster and our blood pressure rises. Cortisol is one of the hormones involved in this process; prolonged high levels of it in the bloodstream can damage the heart, contribute to obesity (especially of the gut), and weaken the immune system.
High cortisol production also leads to increased amounts of fatty deposits in the liver, which in turn can create a range of metabolic disorders.1 In 2008, a team from the University of California–Los Angeles showed that increased levels of cortisol prematurely age immune cells and thus make people more susceptible to illness.2 Cortisol suppresses the action of telomerase, the enzyme that keeps cells young.
Not only is fear bad for our health, it colors our perception of reality. While we like to think that reality is an objective fact, we actually see the world not as it is, but as we are. That’s why everything looks bad when we’re depressed, and wonderful when we’re happy. Beliefs come from information we have learned and experiences we have had. Conscious or unconscious, our beliefs determine our biology and our behavior. We might even have unconscious fears from something we learned as toddlers—childhood programming becomes adult habits of perception and belief.
So our experiences shape our perceptions, which in turn create our beliefs. Our beliefs then reinforce our perceptions, because we now see the world through the filter of these beliefs. Unfortunately, even erroneous beliefs can be self-reinforcing. If we believe the world is a fearful place, for example, we may see other people as distrustful. If, on the other hand, we see the world as benevolent, we may expect people to be friendly and helpful. Some would say that we even create our experiences by our perceptions and beliefs.
How can we change our relationship to fear? How do we respond to the rampant fear stimulated by our sensationalistic mass media? Do news sources exist that will not trigger a release of adrenaline? Do we simply shut out some or all media? Are we as careful about the types of media we allow to affect us as we are about what media we expose our children to? And, perhaps more important, do we recognize when we have experienced a stressful situation or have been in a prolonged state of fear, and then give ourselves time to calm down, rest, and recover? Or are we, along with so many others, simply addicted to fear?
We can become addicted to fear because there is a certain romantic appeal to the tragic side of life. One need only look at the proliferation of vampire fiction to see the appeal of the victim mentality. And yet, with all we now know about the long-term effects of prolonged fear and anxiety, as well as about how we can lay down new, more healthy neural pathways in the brain, playing the victim is not only unhealthy, it has become passé.
We can become victims even when we think ourselves immune to such a thing. When we fall prey to the fear and anxiety stimulated by the media, we, too, have allowed ourselves to be victimized. In my own attempt to stay clear of fear, I have taken more notice recently of the effects that stressful experiences have on me. I often recriminate myself because of my sensitivity, but I just can’t get disturbing images from the media out of my head, sometimes for days or weeks. I have come to appreciate this sensitivity, and am less and less willing to be traumatized in the name of entertainment, or even in the name of being “informed.”
I’m also more willing to give myself extra time to recover from stressful experiences, rather than just press on in the face of feeling overwhelmed. It’s probably my age that has given me permission to indulge my idiosyncrasies—by this time in life, I have finally come to accept myself. Self-acceptance is an antidote to fear. In times of strife, it helps if we refuse to abandon our authentic selves. It also helps if we simply tell the truth, and choose to place ourselves only in harmonious and balanced situations.
Often, when we’re afraid, we feel intimidated and act before we’re ready. But during such hard times, it’s more important than ever to act only when mind and heart are in alignment. And when we feel gripped by fear, one way out is to communicate directly and act immediately to alleviate the fear.
Fear is often accompanied by worry, but worry is absent when we’re lost in the moment—so it’s helpful to cultivate practices and thinking that help us maintain a moment-by-moment focus. Meditation, yoga, biofeedback, and visualization are such practices.
Because we often worry when life feels out of control, setting comfortable limits and boundaries is essential, as is refusing to overextend ourselves to make things happen—even when others create an unnecessary emergency.
If we take the time to observe ourselves and our states of mind, we will find other antidotes to fear and worry. They are but the storms and low points of our emotional life; they are not who we are. We are more complex than our emotions.
Whether it’s fear of something imagined—the possibility of swine flu, avian flu, smallpox, terrorist attack, financial ruin, falling meteors—or of an emergency actually taking place in the present moment, there are things we can do to escape the grip of fear and therefore bring more oxygen to our brains so that we can think more clearly and make better decisions. Here are some things to do:
Name that emotion. The next time you feel out of control, practice naming your emotions: This is anger. This is envy. This is disappointment. When you feel strong emotions, they may seem stronger because you are experiencing several at once. Differentiating them helps you to have a better relationship with them, and to understand what they’re trying to tell you.
Change your thinking. Even when you’re in a foul mood, resist the temptation to let your thoughts wander in negative directions: to what’s wrong with you, to old problems, to things that make you angry. Think in ways that you know will bring out your positive emotions. For example: Rather than a problem or a bad experience, focus on plans and actions for the current day.
Focus outside of yourself. Try to direct your thinking away from problematic thoughts and emotions. Think of a lovely fantasy vacation, something you want to make, something you’re looking forward to, someone you love. Make a special place in your imagination where you can go when you’re experiencing prolonged stress.
Practice positive thinking. Positive thinking is a skill that must be practiced. People talk about having “a spiritual practice”—it’s called that because you have to practice being spiritual. The practice is about working with what is, whether we like it or not.
Stand by yourself. Often, when we’re afraid, we lose perspective on our good qualities. When you’ve experienced something stressful, treat yourself the way you treat your child when she’s had a bad day. Have a nice meal. Drink a cup of hot tea. Cover up with a blanket. Sit by the fire. Listen to relaxing music. Don’t turn against yourself in hard times—take care of yourself.
Use a mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase that can be repeated over and over again. It can drown out negative thoughts and help you keep your focus in the present. Music can be a mantra. Prayer is a mantra. The sacred syllable Om is used as a mantra in eastern religions. My adult children have offered me helpful, secular mantras such as “It’s all good” and “No worries.” I recently saw a wonderful Israeli film, Ushpizin, in which the mantra was “All is God.” The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers up the mantra “Breathing in I calm myself. Breathing out I smile.”
The “Litany against Fear,” from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, has served me as a mantra of sorts for 40 years, and was especially helpful during pregnancy and birth. I’ve memorized the words, so I’m ready with them at a moment’s notice. I even act them out:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Keep your sense of humor. Humor is the universal antidote to fear, anxiety, and worry. Sit yourself down in front of a funny or uplifting movie. Listen to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Play some games. Cultivate your inner prankster. When we’re thinking funny or silly thoughts, fear and anger vaporize.
There’s always something to worry about. If things aren’t going to work out, worry does no good. And if things are going to work out regardless, worrying about them will not help. Either way, worry is useless. It’s a sign of being off balance, over- extended, overtired, or out of control. As parents, we can’t afford it. It robs our energy, ruins our health, and sets a bad example. Therefore, we must somehow find the courage to fight fear in hand-to-hand combat, cut off its head, and claim our birthright: Paradise is a state of mind.
1. Ulrike Lemke et al., “The Glucocorticoid Receptor Controls Hepatic Dyslipidemia through Hes1,” Cell Metabolism 8, no. 3 (September 2008): 212–223.
2. Jenny Choi, Steven R. Fauce, and Rita B. Effros, “Reduced Telomerase Activity in Human T Lymphocytes Exposed to Cortisol,” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 22, no. 4 (May 2008): 600–605.