From the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy
The Chaplaincy will be sharing regular blogs across our beloved University community which they have encouraged us to share to keep us connected, and to encourage reflections and practices that can lift the spirits.
This post was written by Revd Dr Harriet Harris, the University Chaplain.
Think of a gazelle, suddenly aware of a cheetah about to pounce. The gazelle springs into action, runs for its life, freezes to avert attack if the cheetah is upon it (which works), and if the cheetah gives up the chase, the gazelle shakes itself down and returns to gentle grazing.
Whilst faced with the threats around us, how can we, like a gazelle, use our fear and then shake it off?
Fear is not bad or wrong. It is a wholly natural response to threat. It is not a waste of energy, but a massive injection of energy, whose purpose is to prepare us for dealing with danger. It is a deliberately uncomfortable emotion, so as to provoke a response from us.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, we are naturally afraid because there are real threats to us: the virus itself; loss of income for many; loss of shape to our present lives and to our uncertain futures. We don’t know what’s coming, nor what loss or suffering we may endure.
Fear is therefore to be expected and has a job to do. But we do not want to get stuck in it. We do not want to carry it around beyond its usefulness, as this hems us in and leads to anxiety. We want instead to respond to fears as they arise, and then get them out of our bodies.
Here are three suggestions for helping us not to get stuck in fear.
1. Name our fears
A general sense of threat and dread can land us in a swamp. To help us out of this swamp, we want to name our fears and be as specific as we can.
Are they fears of: being alone, not being able to focus on work, falling ill, falling behind, running out of food, going ‘mad’ stuck inside, losing our jobs, losing control (and of what?), dying, losing loved ones?
We could reasonably be afraid of any of the above things, but we are probably not afraid of them all. If we get inquisitive about our fears, we can name them and bring them into view. This is the first step in taming them. ‘I’m afraid of losing my job, but when I think about it, something else – goodness knows what – will have to come in its stead’; or ‘I’m afraid of being alone, but I’m realising ways that I’m not alone’.
It’s also liberating to discover what does not hold fear for us: ‘I’m afraid of falling ill, but I don’t think I’m frightened of dying’. Some people find, when they look, that death does not hold fear for them. But many of us are afraid of dying, and it is part of life’s work to address this fear because death is the one certainty, and it is ultimate. The theologian and medical doctor Albert Schweitzer wrote a century ago that “We must all become familiar with the thought of death if we want to grow into really good people… When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as a gift. Only if we are able thus to accept life – bit by bit – does it become precious.” We overcome death, he said by “regarding, in moments of deepest concentration, our lives and those who are part of our lives as though we already had lost them in death, only to receive them back for a little while.”
There is great freedom to be had in overcoming our fear of death. We are able to let go of the people and things we hold dear, so that we can receive them each back with gratitude for the time we are given to enjoy them. We are also more able to cope with all the ‘mini-deaths’ (endings, set-backs, and losses) that happen throughout our lives.
Often, we are afraid of fear itself. Because we don’t want to feel afraid, we try our hardest to avoid the feelings of fear. Avoidance of the feelings of fear is a key way in which anxiety grows, and so we want to look at suggestions 2 and 3 to help us with our allergy to fear.
2. Use fear for what it is for
Fear energises us for a purpose, which is to get us prepared. Schweitzer was talking about emotional and spiritual preparedness for dying, which also helps us become fully appreciative of life now.
Spiritual and emotional preparedness is perhaps the deepest form of preparedness, without which we are not fully at peace.
But practical and physical preparedness is also what fear calls forth in us. Fear of a deadline gets the adrenalin pumping so that we meet the deadline. Fear of a virus gets us taking precautions to keep ourselves safe. Fear of falling ill helps us to prepare for that eventuality. Fear of losing loved ones helps us to make the connections we want with them in the here and now.
We have less chance, whilst in shutdown, to talk through our thoughts with friends, and so our thoughts can grow into psychological fears, ‘Do I have a mental disorder that has managed to stay hidden?’ Checking out our psychological fears with others, whether by phone or internet, or by the communion that writers, poets and artists help us to share, teaches us that our fears are normal to human experience. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during a shutdown of London in the plague years. The character Macbeth finds he is “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound To saucy doubts and fears” (his mind running away with him). When the spiritual writer Eugene Peterson had a breakdown, he prescribed himself two hours of Dostoevsky a day: humane and intelligent exposure to existential dilemmas.
The Listening Service is picking up such concerns at the moment, and will continue to do so throughout the shutdown, Listening.Service@ed.ac.uk
There is nothing like activity (spiritual, conversational, or practical, depending on the threat) to calm fear. Fear is looking for a response; that is its job. Fear arises in us for our protection and preparedness, so discover what the fear is about and prepare accordingly.
3. Have a shake down
Once fear has done its job, we want to shake it off. In our current Covid-19 shutdown, fear has prepared us socially and individually to get ourselves ready to the best of our ability (shop for essentials, self-isolate, study, Skype parents, look after our emotional and spiritual health, etc). We are taking the precautions we know to take, and are sitting it out. We do not now want to store that fear.
Anxiety grows out of stored up fear, and anxiety tends to self-grow, until our biggest fear becomes fear of being trapped in anxiety.
So, it is really good to have an emotional detox, and clear out the fear as much as we can. That way, when a new fear arises, it will be for us a sign about our present circumstances, rather than a trigger from a general store. (If you would like some fear release processes to help with a generalised sense of fear, have a look at Blogs one to three in this Series, or for a guided spoken process, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
We can use the energy of fear itself to help us to move the fear on. Fear is very physical. It can make us short of breath, highly tense, weak kneed, and unable to think straight (this is the sympathetic nervous system getting us ready for fight, freeze or flight). Because fear sits in the body, it is the body that can move it on. When a bolt of fear strikes us, getting up and moving shifts it somewhat. When a lot of fear is coarsing through us, we can meet it with all the energy it gives us. We can run it out, or dance it out to loud and furious music: move ‘til the fear has gone. Scream it out, into a pillow if necessary. Write it out. Get lots of paper and draw, scribble, paint it out. Whatever it is that works most effectively for us, we want to push the fear through and out of the body. Then like a gracious gazelle who has outrun a cheetah, we can shake off the adrenaline, and start to graze.
Shake down music
For dancing out the fear, something fast like:
‘Sinnerman’ by Nina Simone, or
‘Bat out of Hell’ by Meatloaf
For cooling down and starting to graze,
‘Shedding Skins’ by Fia is interesting.
‘Hallelujah’, the acoustic, beatbox version by Pentatonix, 8D AUDIO, tames the brain waves
As does J. S. Bach, whose Goldberg Variations were written for a nobleman, Goldberg, to help him sleep!