Fear in Tumultuous Times: Three Ways Mindfulness Can Help

by | Jan 12, 2021 | Physician Resilience

With the events at the United States Capitol this past week, many are experiencing what can only be called an emotional hangover. Intense anger, sadness, fear, surprise, grief, and more, an emotional storm that has catapulted many far out of their comfort zone. We can land in catastrophic thinking, alarmed by real-life events, our minds off in a swirl of ‘what if’ thinking. Fear, in particular, can take hold and leave us derailed, almost paralyzed by overwhelm.

Even prior to the events on January 6th, the pandemic has brought a multitude of fears. We can find ourselves in a heightened state of alert, unable to relax, and apprehensive about what is going to happen next.

Fear can leave us 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.

When fear takes hold, we forget that in this moment we are safe. That in this moment our health is ok. That right now our loved ones are healthy and safe. That as imperfect as things may be, they may actually be tolerable. I wrote about this early in the pandemic and want to visit the topic again in this post.

We are hardwired to sense danger

There is no way around the fact that fear is a part of being human. It’s something we all experience. We fear for our health and the well-being of our loved ones. As parents, we experience myriad fears for the safety of our children. Without realizing it, we can find our fear being expressed in anxiety, and it’s no surprise that we currently have a mini-epidemic of anxiety in modern western societies. Yet, most of us learn little about how to manage our fears so they maintain their positive impact of preparing us for real-life danger, yet don’t derail our ability to hold ourselves steady and acting with intention and purpose.

It’s important to recognize that our species is hardwired to sense and react to danger. After all, we didn’t climb the evolutionary ladder by virtue of our physical prowess! No, we had to evolve to escape large predators, warring tribes, and a multitude of other dangers.  Our limbic system developed to alert us to danger in our environment, and to fight, flee, or freeze as a means of keeping us alive. The benefits are profound, but in modern times, that same fight/flight/freeze reaction can be evoked by dangers more perceived than real. Watching alarming events on a computer or tv screen, reading a hostile text, waking up with a sore throat, and wondering if it’s Covid; these can all trigger that same fight/flight response, with all its intensity.

Yet, what happens when we are gripped by fear? Whether bracing for a fight, fleeing, or freezing, our world becomes small. 

When we are in the throes of fear, our world becomes focused on one thing: surviving the threat. 

We move away from connection, from compassion, from love. Even the most open-minded of us become small-minded when we are consumed by fear. We can also be so activated that we are reactive, overly ready for the threat at hand. With fear, we can find ourselves acting in ways that we later regret.

Reflect for a moment about what happens to you when you’re experiencing fear. Notice how your body feels.

Is there tension or relaxation?

Is there a sense of expansion or do you experience constriction?

Is your heart open or closed?

Do you feel connected to those around you or do you have a sense of isolation?

Now, pause and take a few slow deep breaths. Notice what shifts.

Typically, the body softens and relaxes. The sense of tightness and constriction lessens. We have activated our parasympathetic nervous system and put the brakes on the fight/flight response. It can be such a powerful shift that there may even be tears of relief.

Build resilience to fear with a purposeful pause

With mindfulness, we take just this type of pause. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We utilize our breath to take us out of the stories our mind is 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 state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. We can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

We become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

Build resilience to fear with meditation

Another strategy for working with fear is meditation. Meditation is the practice whereby we build our mindfulness muscle. When we meditate, we leave the busyness of the world, sit quietly, and go inward. We do this to get acquainted with our inner world, most importantly, with our thoughts. As we pay attention to what our mind is up to, we see that our mind can be extraordinarily busy, almost frenetically flitting from past to future and back. Here, there, and everywhere, we begin to see just how unfocused and disjointed our own thoughts can be.

Since our mind is the window through which we take in all experience, when our mind is agitated, we can see the world in an agitated and chaotic way. When our mind is caught in fear, we can tend to see the world as a threatening place. Alternatively, a warm and settled mind is more likely to see what is good and worthy in the world around us. 

Further, meditation has been shown to increase compassion, both for self and for others. It helps us connect with our own good qualities and those of the people we interact with. Fostering compassion takes us from the small fear-based self into our best and most large-hearted selves. 

While mindfulness can conjure the image of the solo person meditating on the mountainside, it is actually so much more. And while mindful meditation can seem self-focused or even selfish in the face of global strife, it is truly a way of taking responsibility, for ourselves and for the world around us.

Build resilience to fear with connection

A third strategy is inviting connection to be present with the fear. You likely already know that love and connection are powerful antidotes to fear. They take us from isolation to the comfort that another being brings. This can be a human being, a canine or feline being, or any other being that brings solace. There is strength in numbers, and by not being so alone with the fear, it loses its power. 

Lastly, we can tune into the factors that increase our fear and be very intentional in avoiding these where possible. Top of this list these days is time spent on disturbing news. It’s one thing to be aware of what’s occurring in the world, it’s another to watch the same scenes over and over. Pay attention to whether decreasing your news consumption helps you stay out of fear.  

In summary, there is no question that these are challenging times. While mindfulness can’t change the tumultuous political events of our time, it can provide powerful tools that can help us hold ourselves steady, whatever comes our way. I hope you will try these strategies out. I look forward to hearing how it goes.

  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.