Growing Up By Grounding Fear
Flattening the curve on toilet paper
It is Scary
Like 9/11, we have a new reference point in time. This one touches everyone on the planet personally. There is the life before Covid and there will be the life after. The days during Covid-19 are scary in a life and death sort of way. It does not matter if you get it or if you don’t. The unknowns are scary and so are the secondary consequences.
Life before Covid was getting scary too. It lacked the burning sense of urgency we feel today. Before Covid, many of us were feeling the weight of living in a sick planet. We were also feeling powerless to change the tide of forces affecting our lives for the worst. It’s been a slow spiral down the drain of political divisions, economic inequality, expensive healthcare, deteriorating education, unreliable information and unsustainable living costs.
Fears about this stuff would bubble up while hearing the news, listening to some podcast, watching something or the other. Most of the time we let our existential fear buzz like the white noise of our refrigerators. Confronting the threats to our survival were trumped by a million other things we agreed were more pressing. The behavioralists call this “normalcy bias” with some “herd instinct” folded in.
Covid innocently shined a flood light on the legitimacy of our basal fear. Our efforts to limit Covid created time and space for a serious look at our “normal.” Covid woke us up like a stab wound to witness our collective avoidance. We can’t change our pre-Covid choices today. We can take a compassionate look at our permissiveness.
It is hard to acknowledge our fear. The minute we are aware of being afraid, the fear stuns. We do not know what to do with it. We feel the edge of fear without knowing what drives it. That unknown bit is like salt in a wound. In a blink of the sting is a choice, to feel our fear or not. How many of us choose to feel, to really feel?
Feeling fear falls on the “BAD” list of things in life. We are wired to de-value, shut down, deny, numb, avoid, ignore, push away, or disconnect in the face of what feels bad. We don’t go there. Each of us has our own personal strategy to mitigate fear. Take your pick and recognize your own.
It is fair to say that the virtues of feeling fear are not bestowed upon us. The fear of becoming perpetually fearful is one good reason. There is a bit of evolutionary genius behind that. Our ancestors could not have gotten us here if they were buried by their fear. Humanity has a torturous past. Survival of the fittest depended on adaptive strategies to mitigate the fear trailing our history. Sometimes shutting out fear is the smart move even if it it leaves us blind.
This is no ones fault. Let me say this again. Don’t blame yourself or shame someone else for our relationship with fear. We are not taught or encouraged to experience it. The opposite is true. We learn from a very young age to disengage from it. It starts well before our little ears first hear the words, “Don’t be scared.”
Our language innuendoes shaming fear. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “You can smell the fear.” It has led to an epidemic of anxiety. Anxiety is fear knocking at door with no one willing to welcome it home. As far as I can tell, fear universally wears a hazard label.
Expressing fear is an act of vulnerability. Vulnerability for many of us equals weakness. Not too smart when told, “It is a jungle out there.” Many of us do not know how to feel fear so that it enters through our door like a guest who comes, visits and leaves. So the fear lives ungrounded in us until we answer the door. The art of resolving fear lives somewhere between being fearless and fearful.
How do we feel fear? It begins by letting the physical sensations of fear move through the body via our nervous system. We embody it by opening the door and letting it in. This is very different from all those tactics designed to keep fear out. Allowing the conscious experience of fear to happen and be felt is when we ground it. When we become grounded by it. We can relate to fear as a “GOOD” thing when we know how to be with it. Experiencing fear is a movement through us, not a static state of being.
Digesting our emotional truth requires slowing down first. The second step is the awareness of being uncomfortable. Allowing space and real-time awareness lets us address this instead of neglect it. We can track our fear by noticing simple things about our bodies. Our breath is the ultimate tell tale. Noticing when we are holding it or breathing shallow. Muscles are another great clue. Catching the moment when we are tensing them. Pulling up our shoulders. Tightening our pelvic floor. Clenching our butt cheeks. Unrecognized fear sucks up our space physically. It isolates us into aloneness.
We can regulate ourselves. Restoring the movement of our breath reclaims the space that fear shrinks. Breathing into the belly. Taking the effort out of contracting all those muscles. Letting that energy redirect from shutting our eyes to actually seeing the object of our fear. We begin to observe what is our truth instead of being whip smacked by it. This restoring of space lets us see.
Sometimes processing fear requires help. When the above is not enough we need to share our experience with someone who we trust. Someone who feels safe. Someone with a nurturing quality who can be with us in our fear without an agenda. This could be a wise family member, friend, therapist or healer of any specialty. Grounded people resource us when there is more fear than we can handle on our own. They provide a resonance that allows the ripples of fear to move down. They anchor us when the “too muchness” sweeps us away.
Storing Fear Alone or Risking Intimacy
The phrases teaching us to push away fear are the good intentions of someone thinking this makes it go away. It only postpones our emotional experience and postpones the resolution. A backlog is born. Feelings are tricky. Sometimes they get triggered by situations that have more to do with a past experience than the present one. Sometimes the present one 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.
Feelings are waves of energy. We can feel their movement or store them in the body for a later day. They accumulate in our tissues. There is our reality to our feelings. What is true for us and may not make sense to those around us. The irrational nature of feelings comes with a sense of vulnerability and judgment. Hence the sentence, “I know this does not make sense but it feels like….” Asking to be met in our vulnerability is an invitation for intimacy. The warmth, comfort, and nurture intimacy generates grounds fear as we acknowledge the true nature of our feelings.
Intimacy heals the isolation of fear. It reverses the aloneness. We need to feel our feelings in relationship and it has nothing to do with making sense. We have to let that expectation go. Yes, it is naked. Expressing vulnerability is like leaving the door unlocked. For some of us it feels crazy to let this defense down but without it, we are doomed to emotional isolation. Expressing vulnerability waves a white flag that signals safety in relationship.
Our habits around fear may have worked for us as little kids but they are not working for us now. The difference is, we are capable of more as we strive for more. Our fear tells us important things that our highly evolved brains cannot. Fear is our alarm bell. It gets our attention. It is important to feel it, not rationalize it away for another day. Fear is a beacon signal of gut instinct. It cuts through the complexity that leaves our intellect doing somersaults. Also known as, “Trying to figure it out.” Most importantly fear alerts us to needs for change. Fear is a remedy to the intellectual trappings of “normalcy bias,” “herd instinct” and the politically correct favorite “optimism bias.”
Covid-19 has brought a tsunami of suffering to the entire globe with unprecedented speed. You don’t need to be infected with it to be affected by it. Hoarding and panic born from a fear of scarcity and a threaten sense of safety was a reaction. Fear of scarcity is not scarcity. It is important to recognize the difference. We have never been more materially prosperous or intelligent as we are today. Somehow this fact escaped us. We did not live up to our collective IQ or capacities by reacting too fear. Reacting from fear is a knee jerk reflex. It happens fast. It slams the door to seeing what else is possible in the space between a rock and a hard place. We need to be aware of those options to succeed in the complexity of today. Split second knee jerk reactions leave no room for listening to what fear is saying.
What if we slowed down and gave space to the frenzy coursing through us in the paper goods aisle? Took the the time to feel the fear of the unknowns and include the knowns. Would that have transpired in a scarcity of toilet paper? Only those with a stockpile can tell us now. Feeling fear is listening to it, is looking at it. Instead we look away and plug our ears to what scares us, just like when we were kids. This is our permissiveness. One antidote is creating a relationship with our fear and embracing the vulnerability to share it. Had people in positions of leadership done this, what type of decisions would they have made? Who else would they have been open to for advice and expertise.
We are progressively numbed to fear. It is no wonder with the overwhelming pollution of words bombarding us with scary things everyday. It kicks up a ton of emotional dust. It so thick, we can’t see. We need to learn how to digest this information on mass before it buries us. It is the next step to growing up and becoming a coherent global humanity. Long ago we globalized everything else without growing up in our relationships to each other. This numbness costs us clarity around our interdependence.
Globally there is enough of what we need through our capacity to create it. It is our unconscious fear steering us away from solutions. Our fixation with quantity of resources distracts us from the real challenge of allocating resources to those in need. This has more to do with our relationship to each other as “other.” We need to revisit the identifications we carry in order to belong with “some” but separate from the “rest.” There is no “rest” anymore when we live so globally interconnected. There are so many identifications to overcome from gender, race, political ideology, nationality, sexuality, socioeconomics and even religious.
We all pay a premium for decisions that pit one against the other. A face mask that was 85¢ one day became $8.50 the next as States were pitted against each other to access PPE for their own. This boils down to Americans against Americans. Then there is an exponential complexity that comes with most PPE being made outside of US because it is cheaper. On that level, humanity is against itself. Distrust from ungrounded fear of each other created new challenges while simultaneously hijacking solutions. Unshared fear shuts down the vulnerability that invites a spirit of collaboration.
Scientists and healthcare workers grasping the implications of Covid-19 dropped their status quo. They looked beyond institutional boundaries, national loyalties and economic windfalls. They were clear about how scary this is to realize the irrelevance of those structures. All over social media they nakedly shared their fear with each other. This opened us up to real time learning. It continues to evolve into unprecedented collaborations. Those folks are making a difference. Collaboration addresses the complex challenges we created when we chose the advantages of complex living.
We have some unavoidable challenges facing every human being on this planet today. They were there before Covid. Candid conversations about our fears open the doors to trust and collaboration. The old normal is obsolete. We outgrew it. Normalizing this “new abnormal” is not the answer. We create our normals. We can make one that lets us shake hands together as a unified humanity evolving through the challenges driving our development.
We are in a period where more of us need to learn about actually feeling our feelings. There is a vast complexity and range to this process. This will take a lot of learning and personal work. Digesting our feelings into resolution requires precision. The practice supersedes the introduction of the concept offered here. Those willing, will have to engage in some uncomfortable work. The successful will be the solutions to the challenges ahead. For those identified with the old normal, “A life lived in fear is half lived.”
Ruchi Puri, MD, Msc, FACOG, is a board certified Obstetrician and Gynecologist who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. As a first generation Indian American, she possesses a rich curiosity for both Eastern and Western healing traditions, along with a habit of challenging conventional thinking. She holds all the usual degrees of Medicine along with a few extras. She continues to study Ayurvedic Medicine, Five Element Acupuncture, the impact of trauma on our development, and modalities of spiritual healing.
Her journey is off the beaten path. She is a global nomad who has traveled, worked and studied in over 35 countries. Her experience traverses the healthcare industry, policy, research, public relations and clinical medicine. Ruchi maintains a strong passion for improving women’s healthcare globally with years of humanitarian service devoted to improving obstetric and surgical care. She lives in San Francisco where she enjoys being close to the ocean, hiking the headlands, and photographing life unfolding. Her joy lives in the collective nurturing of family, friends and community.