With rising COVID cases, and the US election, it’s a pensive week for many. For this week’s MindLetter, we revisit how to look after ourselves in the midst of strong emotions and uncertainty. Hang in there.
Responding Wisely to Fear and Worry
The spread of coronavirus around the world is creating ‘understandable fear and worry,’ writes Willem Kuyken, director of the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre. ‘This is a double edged sword that on the one side is an appropriate call to action and on the other can create panic, reactivity and additional problems…A public health and psychological response, together, can help us find a way through these challenging times.’
What might such a psychological response look like? In the current climate, equanimity – engaging steadily, pragmatically, and with care – may seem a quality easier said than done. That is why mindfulness is inherently a practice, and not just something good to talk about. To respond wisely to fear and worry, we look this week at how the mind typically reacts to difficulty, and then we look to Tara Brach’s practice RAIN: Recognise, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture as a way of working with it.
Our psychological reactions to difficulty, stress, and uncertainty are made up of many interlocking layers. There may be initial anxiety: thoughts take the form of questions – ‘what will happen?’ ‘What should I be doing?’, or images, or statements: predictions about the future – ‘THIS will happen’ – that feel just as real and solid in the moment as this screen in front of you now.
When difficult emotions and thoughts come up, the mind catapults into its age-old protection and survival mode, and so our secondary reactions usually fall into one of two camps: avoidance, or ‘fixing’. Avoidance strategies are myriad: distraction, procrastination, various kinds of addiction, and so on. In ‘fixing’ mode, the mind jumps in and tries to help. We may ruminate, creating endless lists and possible scenarios in the imagination, all with that underlying sense that if we can only think of everything, we’ll be ok. We may scroll repeatedly through Twitter for opinions and news. We may clean the Co-op out of toilet roll.
Avoidance and fixing both have their place. The mind is after all trying to protect us; it is important to give yourself psychological respite from difficulty, and to act sensibly to safeguard your health. If you have a history of trauma in particular, it is wise to tread lightly when working with fear and worry: sometimes right now is not the time to try a new strategy, and that is ok.
So wise avoidance, and wise action, are vital – and often have a sense of clarity to them. But the most intense varieties of avoidance and fixing, like denial or panic, often feel foggy and blobby. If we were to put them under a cognitive microscope, we would see that they are made up of layer upon layer of inter-reacting thoughts and emotions, whizzing around and feeding each other without interruption. We rarely notice all the elements of this complex inter-reactivity happening, because the protect-and-survive mode of mind is so powerful. We may only be aware of a sense of compulsion, escalation, and conviction about the truth of the potential scenarios playing across the cinema-screen of the mind. And so getting stuck in avoidance or fixing typically happens when we are most frightened of, or angry about, our own fear and worry, so that we do not fully acknowledge and investigate it, enabling clarity of thought or action, but rather compound it.
It is important, therefore, not to bat away our anxiety, fear, or anger, but to recognise it with care, curiosity, and gentleness. To notice what’s here, it helps to drop in some questions: what emotions am I feeling? What thoughts are coming up in the mind? Recognising and naming difficult thoughts and feelings can bring a sense of clarity. OK, anxiety is here. So that’s what I’m feeling.
Once we see what is here, it is important to allow it to be here, again bringing as best you can a sense of gentleness to your emotions. You might even mentally note, ‘it’s ok that I feel this’; ‘it’s understandable that I am thinking this’. Allowing our fear and worry to be here in experience is not the same as saying that the situation is ok. Rather, it is acknowledging that it is ok for you to feel the way that you feel about it. Wanting to get rid of those feelings and thoughts, instead of allowing them to be there, is what tends to drive a sense of denial or fear.
Once we have recognised, acknowledged and allowed what we are feeling, Tara writes, we can investigate this experience a little more. ‘To investigate, call on your natural curiosity – the desire to know truth – and direct a more focused attention to your present experience. You might ask yourself: What most wants attention? How am I experiencing this in my body? What am I believing? What does this vulnerable place want from me? What does it most need?’
Notice if the mind tips over into rumination or avoidance again, and as best you can, bring it back to a sense of embodied listening. ‘Whatever the inquiry,’ Tara writes, ‘your investigation will be most transformational if you step away from conceptualizing and bring your primary attention to the felt-sense in the body.’
When we gently attend to and investigate our intense experiences with a sense of care and curiosity, we can nurture and tend wisely to what we have discovered. It often helps to drop a question into the mind, like a pebble in a pond: what does this need?
Often a thought or an image will arise in response to that question. While denial mind would have us continue on autopilot, and panic mind would have us do the biggest thing imaginable, often the small things are powerful: remembering to eat lunch, or drink a cup of tea; a phone-call to a friend, or a particular action or conversation. When we create space through reflection, sometimes a certain line from a poem, or something someone once told us, emerges as a source of comfort, wisdom, and good sense.
On that note, I leave you with my favourite poem on this theme, below.
If you can sit quietly after difficult news;
if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;
if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;
if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;
if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;
if you can always find contentment just where you are:
you are probably a dog.
By Jack Kornfield, after Rudyard Kipling