Fear and Worry: Three Practical Antidotes You Can Access Today

by | Mar 23, 2020 | Physician Mindfulness

Every physician I’ve coached this week has shared how much fear and worry they’re living with. An anesthesiologist fearful of COVID-19 exposure in the OR. A radiologist worried after hearing rumors of being deployed to the ICU. An internist with too many at-risk diabetics and COPD patients to safely manage them all. And each also fearful for their children, aging parents, and others. In a time like this, it’s natural for fear to run high. For physicians and for all of us. Our minds can flit from one worry to another, some grounded in reality and many not. We can find ourselves preoccupied with the latest news, worried about what the government will do next, and focusing on what the stock market crash will mean for our retirement.

Many of us are running in sympathetic overdrive—heart racing, breath shallow, body tight. Caught in a fight/flight/freeze response, it’s as if our foot is stuck on the gas pedal. In this state of activation, our ability to manage stress and challenge decreases. We become alarmist, reactive, and irritable, and our ability to cope and execute good decisions erodes. We forget that in this moment we are safe. That in this moment we’re healthy. That right now our loved ones are healthy and safe.

Staying in the present moment provides respite from all the worry and fear. This is not a Pollyanna endeavor; it’s respite grounded in reality. Particularly in difficult times, we need the clarity, focus, and balance that calm provides. It may actually be as essential as hand sanitizer!

There are a number of simple mindfulness-based strategies that can help keep us in the present. Here are three that you can try today.

Stay in the present with a purposeful pause

Intentionally pausing is the simplest yet most underutilized strategy for managing fear and anxiety. Simply pausing and taking three slow, deep breaths has a myriad of benefits. First, it brings you back to the present. And the present is typically a far safer place than the unknown future. In the present, you’re able to breathe, think, and gather yourself to meet the demands you face. In the present you are safe. In the present, fears of a catastrophic future are not the reality.

Second, with a pause, you’re interrupting the cycle of amygdala activation with its cascade of stress hormones. You’ve giving your system a chance to let these biochemicals wash away, removing the high level of distress and alarm. A pause clears your system for a state of calm. Third, pausing and taking three slow deep breaths engages the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, you’re applying the brakes. Pausing brings almost immediate calm.

Remind yourself what you’re grateful for

In times like this, we can be swept away not only by fear but by a sense that we’ve been dealt a bad hand. That the situation we’re in is unfair. Our minds can be so focused on fear and what’s not going well that it can feel like we have nothing to be grateful for. Yet is that true? Or are there also many things that are going well? Again, this is not about being Pollyanna; it’s about maintaining a reality-based vantage point.

In case you’re struggling to think of things you’re grateful for, here are some options:

Grateful that your health is good right now.

Grateful that you’ve been able to stock up and be prepared.

Grateful that your loved ones are safe.

Grateful that it’s almost springtime so it’s possible to be outdoors in the fresh air.

Grateful that you have a cell phone and can stay in touch with others.

We can have a brief moment of gratitude and then find that our mind has been pulled to fear. The practice of gratitude is very much like meditation. We are reactive and our mind goes to fear and worry. We notice that this has occurred, and we come back to gratitude. Over and over and over, this is what we need to do. There’s no reason to expect ourselves to be perfect or get it right every time. The point is to keep practicing and building the muscle of intentional focus.

Lean into connection

In times like this, the natural impulse is to hunker down. With the need for social distancing, we avoid contact. And fear can also lead us to isolate from others. Maybe if I isolate, I’ll increase my chances of staying healthy. But when we isolate ourselves, it typically simply allows an opportunity for our fears to multiply. Connection is the antithesis of fear. Connection reminds us that we are not alone and that we are truly all in this together. It reminds us that we’re all struggling right now, so it helps put our fears in perspective. All of us are fearful and worried, so maybe I’m actually ok. When I see your smile, I realize that I can smile too. All of us need to remind one another to come back to the present and be grateful for what we have.

The good news is that we all have cell phones and thus there are many ways to stay connected. A video call with a friend. A text to check in on someone who may not have loved ones near. Even a smiley face emoji. In addition, with spring arriving, we can safely be outside with others.

Take action

In summary, I hope you’ll try one of the three strategies we’ve examined:

  1. When your fear temperature is rising, pause and take three slow deep breaths.
  2.  Remind yourself what you’re grateful for.
  3.  Reach out to someone.

Experiencing fear during this time is normal, so you don’t need to berate yourself when it arises. The key is managing it. And that takes practice. Just as important as social distancing, we can all play a role in containing the fear virus. We can all play a role in maintaining much-needed calm.

  1. Embrace uncertainty

When you stop and think about it, uncertainty and change are the only things that are certain. Impermanence is one of the basic laws of our world.

After all, everything changes. Our relationships change. Our kids grow up and change. Our bodies age and change. Our environments change. Our planet changes.

All too often, however, we forget this basic truth. We somehow expect things to be predictable and stable.

The problem is that this expectation sets us up for difficulty. It leaves us struggling unnecessarily when something shifts. It adds a layer of suffering above and beyond that caused by all the VUCA around us.

What I’m getting at is that we have a choice. We can meet uncertainty with reactivity or we can meet it with mindful understanding.

More than meditating on a remote mountainside, mindfulness helps us have the calm, steadiness, and clarity we need to work constructively with all the change and uncertainty.

At the same time, while we can find ourselves resisting change, we can remind ourselves that it does not have to mean something bad! Just take a moment right now to think of all the difficulties you have faced in your life and work that are now resolved and far behind you. This can help you see how change has actually been quite the positive.

  1. Respond to complexity with compassion

Even knowing that change is the only thing that is certain, it can still be difficult to weather. Living in such a VUCA time is difficult. You deserve compassion for managing all the challenges.

With mindful awareness, we can bring ourselves compassion for what we’re going through. There is increasing evidence that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to stress and even burnout. From where I sit, I think that it is actually one of the most powerful medicinals available to us.

  1. Take purposeful pauses

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on within and around us. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We learn to utilize our breath to take us out of the fears, worries, stories, and preoccupations our minds are so good at generating about what might come next, and bring us back to the present moment. Here in the present, we leave that overly activated limbic state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. It creates a critically important space between our emotional response and conscious, intentional action.

Once we have paused, we can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

With a pause, we become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

  1. View VUCA as opportunity

I don’t know about you, but I can find myself reacting to the VUCA environment with something of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, I am telling myself things like ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ and ‘why is this happening?’

When I can utilize mindful awareness, I can see that I’ve boxed myself in with a fixed mindset. I can challenge myself to grow. By grow, I mean challenging myself to see whatever difficulty I’m experiencing as an opportunity to learn.

Here again, mindfulness again throws us a lifeline. Mindful awareness involves leaning into curiosity.

I can flip the script and ask myself:

What can I learn from this experience?

How can I use this to be a better version of myself?

How can I help others cope in this VUCA environment?

What do I want to look back and see about how I acted?

In summary, while VUCA is definitely the order of the day in healthcare and beyond, you don’t have to succumb. You don’t have to live in fear. There are constructive actions you can take to help you cope with uncertainty, build calm in chaos, and even thrive in chaos and VUCA. While we can’t control much that is contributing to the VUCA time, with mindfulness we can control how we respond to it.

I hope you’ll try out these 4 mindfulness strategies as I have seen them help countless people. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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To learn more about how mindfulness coaching can help you cope with this VUCA time, please reach out for a complimentary consult.

6 Free Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

  1. 14-day meditation series 
  2. Imposter No More PDF
  3. Resilience Book Chapter
  4. Leading In Crisis PDF
  5. Balance To Burnout PDF
  6. 30-minute consult

Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.