How To Stop Being Afraid—Even When The Whole World Thinks You Should Be
As I write this, I am in Tokyo. It’s been 48 hours since the biggest earthquake that's ever been recorded in Japan. Ever since the sheer terror of those five minutes in which our building shook and swayed and groaned, and I didn’t know if my daughter and I would make it out alive, I have been glued to the public lens—tv, facebook, text messages, photos—with a surreal combination of horror and paralysis. The devastation north of us is shocking. The normalcy of Tokyo is shocking, too, except that water, rice, and batteries are disappearing from the supermarkets. And looming over everything is the very real chance that a nuclear reactor will melt down and release unfathomably toxic substances into the air, water, and land.
I have been afraid—terrified, really—for 48 hours.
People, I am here to say, that is long enough.
Here is where my fear got me: my head aches. My shoulders ache. My jaw aches, from clenching it. My breath is short and shallow. My heart aches at every sad photograph, and my nervous system is at the mercy of every authoritarian voice broadcasting worry.
In that condition, I am no more useful to the world, my family, or myself than a very anxious marmoset.
So here is how I am changing my frequency. If this stuff is working for me today, it will work for you too—whether you are afraid about your finances, your future, your failing left tail light, or your embarrassing flail in yesterday’s meeting.
1. I turned off the news. I can receive up-to-the-minute information via text, and my heart is already with those who are suffering. When I read information, it goes to my brain and not straight to my primal fight-or-flight response. The music and images of TV news are geared to trigger panic and an empathic flood; I’ve decided not to let myself get triggered.
2. I cleaned my house. This grounded me, calmed me, and got me back into my body, which is a much more reliable navigation system than my shrieking reptile survival brain, what Martha Beck calls my ‘lizard.’ My lizard tells me that we are DOOOOMED. My body tells me that we need to stretch, to sing, to self-soothe with quiet rhythms. (Folding laundry works nicely.)
3. I faced the worst-case scenario. My partner and I came up with a plan for what we would do if the reactor begins to spew, or if there is a serious food crisis in Tokyo, or any of the other frightening scenarios that have been haunting me. Now that I know what I will actually do if any of those events come to pass, I can dismiss them when they clamor for my attention. And the last line of every plan is: “And if none of that works, we wing it as well as we can.” This is actually a pretty good plan.
4. I questioned my scary thoughts. My underlying thought, the one that was making my heart palpitate and my fists clench, was: “We are in danger right this very second!” I asked, “Is this true?” And the answer is, Who the heck knows? We could be, for sure. But then any of us could be in danger at any minute of any day. But what I know right now is that I am sitting in my apartment with running water, electricity, heat, and very fast internet. My loved ones are safe. We are getting the best information we know how to get. So I choose to live in the blissful sense of safety that most of us inhabit when we’re not acutely aware that the sky could fall at any moment. Believing that I am safe is no more arbitrary, at this particular moment in time, than believing that I am in danger, but it feels a lot better and it makes me more insightful, more courageous, and more wise. It lets me think more creatively and compassionately. And all those things, paradoxically, will work to keep me and the ones I love safe. If I am in real physical danger, my system will flood with adrenaline and I will be able to act on the terror I’ve been feeling and suppressing these last two days. I will run, or fight, or negotiate, or do whatever I need to do. Until then, I choose to keep breathing deep, calming breaths (Thanks, Terry DeMeo) and asking myself, “Is that scary thought even true?”
5. I took constructive action. I made up a backpack full of emergency items and our important paperwork. Maybe your constructive action is making a phone call or getting something checked out. Maybe it’s opening the scary envelope or looking at your online balance. You’ll feel better if you just do it, I promise.
6. I let my body release. Because I was with my daughter during the most frightening part of the quake (lying on the floor of our 16th-floor apartment as it pitched and creaked like a ship in a storm), I spent significant energy holding it together for her. We talked a bit about how scared we both were, and she seemed okay, but later she had a major sobbing meltdown about something inconsequential. Then she was perky again. Little kids are very wise that way. I waited until I was alone in bed that night to sob and shudder. With each heave of my shoulders and shuddering quaking tremble, I let some of my fear and tension release. Animals tremble and shudder to shake off trauma; we need to do it too, even when the trauma is only visible to us.
7. I consciously flooded myself with beauty. I listened to music that makes me want to move my body and heal the world. For me this means Christine Kane, The Dixie Chicks, and other things too embarrassing to write here. I also bought flowers today, a big gorgeous bouquet of them, in a flagrant act of flipping the bird at fate. I am buoyed and nourished by their blooming faces as I make my way through my home.
8. I grounded back into my purpose. I had a brief panic about a class I’m teaching in a few weeks, The Queen Sweep. http://www.annakunnecke.com/the-queen-sweep.html I wondered if clearing clutter would seem frivolous in light of global tragedy. I questioned its ultimate value in the world and the worth of the work I do. In other words, I freaked out. Many people are layering their immediate fear with scary thoughts like this about their future worth and their careers. Screw that. In a crisis like this, I’m more glad than ever that I know exactly where to find my passport; that my papers are in order and I’ve declared a guardian for my daughter; that we all have clean underwear and clean sheets to sleep on; and that my home is an oasis of calm and beauty. Whatever the crisis, the world needs people who are sharp, who know their stuff, and know what they can contribute. Be ready to bring what you can to the table.
9. I gazed at my daughter. She is so beautiful. She is so alive through her fear, her joy, her rage, her desire—she doesn’t shut any of it down. It’s all right there, messy and inconvenient at times, but gloriously awake.
10. Most importantly, I remembered that I am the boss of my own energy. I kept waiting for someone to make me feel better, to reassure me, to tell me what to do. Guess what? No one can declare dominion over my life besides me. I have to be the leader that I was waiting for. Chin up, deep breath, flowers on table. Here we go.