Living in fear: Rambling at 2 am because I can’t sleep
I see the term “living in fear” a lot at the moment. Attributed to various people in the media and in comments on social media posts, it’s used in association with the coronavirus pandemic, governments easing restrictions and opening borders, and is usually preceded by the words “we need to stop”.
And when these people say “we”, they actually mean people other than themselves. Because they’re not living in fear and for some reason feel like they need to tell the people who are that they need to stop.
I wanted to explore this some more.
Fear is a big emotion and it can be triggered by lots of things: dogs, spiders, thunderstorms, loud noises, global pandemics to name a few. It can be a learned reaction that might have resulted from a single distressing incident involving the object of one’s fear or it might have built up over time due to excessive exposure to scary, negative information about something.
Either way, once installed, fear is not something that is easy to overcome. Imagine if you were afraid of dogs and someone said “you have to stop being fearful of dogs”. Well. I don’t know how you might react, but I’d most likely think, “thank you so much for that helpful suggestion. I’d never have thought of that”.
When someone says “We need to stop living in fear” it sounds like the person saying it doesn’t understand how people who are fearful actually feel. They are saying this as if people can just flip a switch in their head and turn the fear off.
Now, I know that it’s my response to frightening things that’s keeping me stuck in fear. I’ve read the books and I’ve been to the therapists. I know that an event doesn’t upset me, it’s my response to the event that upsets me. And when I’m feeling rational, I can often catch myself, remind myself of this and change my response.
But when the non-rational side of my brain is in control, it’s very difficult to access my rational brain. Fear takes hold. I am, if you like, living in fear.
This is what living with fear looks like for me at the moment.
I seem outwardly okay. I can get things done, I can have a conversation, I can laugh at jokes, I can go out and have coffee with you. Outside if you don’t mind, though. You’d probably have no idea how scared I am.
Life goes on for a while and even I start to think I’m okay and all of this has gone away. But it hasn’t.
I’ll be standing at a crossing waiting for the light to change and a driver, not moving because the traffic ahead is stuck, will beep their horn at me to walk already before the walk signal’s gone green and I’ll be startled and start to cry. The light hasn’t changed. Why are you beeping at me? Leave me alone!
You’ll say something to me that disrupts the way I thought things were going and I’ll feel a tightening in my chest, my body tensing and I’ll start to panic inside because this isn’t what I expected. I’ll probably shut down and stop talking and you’ve lost me.
I’ll have forgotten the yogurt for the dip and I’ll burst into tears because I’ve ruined Christmas.
I’ll be sitting at an outdoor cafe table and people will wait close by for their takeaway coffee and I’ll feel that same tensing and panic rising up and a feeling I have to get away from there, to get away from people, but not be able to because I don’t want to make a fuss. So I’ll sit there tense, like a cornered mouse, until they’ve gone and I can breathe again.
It’s not stopping me falling asleep but it sure as hell isn’t stopping me waking up at stupid hours of the morning, thinking about this stuff and not being able to get back to sleep. So I’m tired a lot of the time.
I go to my GP or a counsellor or a therapist and they use words like “stress”, “anxiety”, “distress”.
I feel terrible.
Yes, I’m one of the people who “has to stop living in fear” of coronavirus.
I’m trying to deal with this.
I wrote last week about what some of my strategies are. Most of them are common sense and are what health experts already recommend. Regular hand sanitising, checking in. Wearing a mask anywhere I know there will be people, not just indoors as is currently required. Keeping as far away from people as I practically can. Moving away if I need to. Sitting outside at coffee shops instead of inside. Not staying as long as I used to. Riding my bike instead of catching the bus as much as possible. Leaving my workplace if I start to feel crowded. These are all things I can control and things I can do that help me feel as safe as I can.
It makes things better but it doesn’t eliminate the fear. That’s constantly with me.
I know that fear is a reaction in my brain designed to keep me safe. Back in cave man times, the people who didn’t live in fear of things that might kill them most likely got killed by those things and, therefore, failed to pass on their “fearless” genes to their offspring. The ones who were cautious and did things to ensure their safety had a better chance of surviving and passing on their instincts, including their fear response, to their descendants and, ultimately, to people who are alive today.
So what am I fearful of? Well, the virus. As I said last week, I’ve been exposed to news for the past two years telling me how dangerous this virus is. We’ve been spared much of the chaos caused by massive case numbers in some other states by keeping our borders largely closed, and life has gone on pretty much unhindered by lockdowns. We’ve had to check in to venues, but there has been a huge drop off in the number of people sanitising when they go into businesses, and physical distancing has become a thing of the past. If it felt like there wasn’t a death virus floating around, it’s because, well, there hasn’t been.
But all of that changed last week. It was time to let the virus in.
Back in October when this was announced, the modelling released by the government anticipated somewhere between 43,000 and 52,000 people would contract the disease in the first 200 days, depending on what health measures were put in place. That’s around 10 per cent of the population. But this was before we knew about the omicron variant which appears to spread more easily. I don’t know if they’ve updated the figures since then.
I think I’m lucky. I’m vaccinated. I’m not immune compromised. I don’t work in an area that has a high level of public contact and I don’t really have to go anywhere except work two days a week. Rational brain knows that if I stick to my plan, I will reduce my chances of being one of those 50,000 people who get infected.
But fear brain is still scared. Ten per cent of the population is not an insignificant number of people.
Fear brain worries that people I spend time with might themselves have become infected. Some might be less vigilant than others. I don’t know what they do and I can’t make them do anything.
Fear brain keeps checking exposure sites to make sure I haven’t been to any of them, even the low risk ones, because it would just take an infected person to be breathing the wrong way, or sit too close to me, and I could be next.
Fear brain knows that omicron might cause mild or even no symptoms, but also that long covid exists. The World Health Organisation recognises it as a real thing, even if our governments aren’t mentioning it. It’s real and it can be serious and some research is saying as many as one in three people who get covid, even mild symptoms, can end up with significant long-term health problems. And if omicron is less resistant to vaccines, then this sounds like a problem.
Fear brain doesn’t like that and fear brain wants to scream this at people who leave comments on posts about mandatory mask wearing or social distancing that covid is just “a cough and a sniffle”.
Fear brain is also not helped by clickbait headlines like “We’re all going to get Omicron”. (Avoiding news is part of the plan but it’s not always easy to do.)
My mind is a constant battle between rational brain and fear brain. It’s exhausting, especially when something happens that I normally might have not been too bothered about, which sparks fear brain into action. And what I know about fear brain is that once it’s activated, it’s impossible for rational brain to reason with it. On top of this, some things going on in other parts of my life are making reasoning with it even more difficult.
But I am trying. I’m getting help, I’m learning strategies, and I’m doing the best that I can.
When it comes down to it though, I know that two years of fear conditioning isn’t going to vanish in a few days, or even a few weeks. It will take time and I need to respect that. It certainly won’t vanish because people keep chiming in with statements like “we have to stop living in fear”.
I never want to hear that phrase again.
21 for 2021 update
Annoying undone things (thing 5)
I did another thing off this list, which was to get rid of the broken sewing machine. It had been sitting in the hallway since I got the new one in August 2020.
Kramstable’s videos (thing 8)
I finished the video. Then I had to add some extra things in the credits. I finished the video. I found a minor error. I finished it again. I found another minor error. I finished it again. It was ready to send to family on Christmas eve but I decided to leave it until the morning. I did a final check on Christmas morning and found a clip that didn’t have a title. I fixed that, finalised it, and uploaded it.
We watched it with my family on Christmas Day and there was a typo in the credits . . .
This thing is done.
21 for 2021 summary
Things completed this week: 8
Things completed to date: 6 (1, 8, 11, 17, 18, 20)
Things I progressed: 2 (5, 9)
Things in progress I didn’t progress: 9 (2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 16,)
Things not started: 4 (12, 15, 19, 21)
What else did I do this week?
What I’m reading this week
Wrest Point: The Life, The Times and The People of Tasmania’s Hotel by Graeme Tonks and Mark Dibben
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Founding of Hobart 1803-1804 by Frank Bolt
Days I went for a walk in the morning (Goal = 7): 7
Days I did my morning planning routine at work (Goal = 4): 0
Days I did my post-work pack up routine (Goal = 4): 0
Days I worked on my art (Goal = 2): 3
Days I read a book (Goal = 7): 7
Days I did yoga stretches (Goal = 7): 0
Days I had a lunch break away from my desk (Goal = 5 work days): 5
Days I went for a walk or did other physical activity in the afternoon (Goal = 5): 5
Days I shut my computer down before 9.30 (Goal = 6): 5