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March 21, 2020

Feeling The Fear? Stop, Drop & Roll.

Under the new normal of isolation and Covid19 fears, I’ve got lots of time to read panic-inducing social media posts. And lots of time alone with my thoughts. Greaaaat.

As a freelance event producer, I’m out of work for the foreseeable future. I also lost my health insurance. So I’ve got a double whammy of worry about both health and keeping the roof over our heads (single mom of two). It would be easy to get overwhelmed. But I’m not. 

Am I aware that those things could happen? Of course. But worry = stress, and stress… well, the WHO identified it as the #1 killer of humankind. Not just because of heart attacks and strokes, but because our bodies were meant to activate our stress system on occasion (saber toothed tigers, tornados, and whatnot). NOT on a daily, persistent basis. We’re overtaxing our organs with our continual stress responses, and weakening our immune systems. 

So a few years ago I learned a method to let go of fear, and it’s changed my life. It all started with a little 2000 year old story I heard three years ago…

A poor peasant farm couple is gifted a horse by a traveler passing through. This would enable them to till the soil and harvest crops much faster, bringing income for the family.

What great fortune!” their friends and neighbors exclaimed. Maybe,” they replied.

A few weeks later, while working in the field, the horse got spooked and kick his teenage son, crushing both legs and putting him in a wheelchair. 

What terrible misfortune!” their friends and neighbors exclaimed. Maybe,” they replied.

A week later, the military came through town, knocking on doors and taking able-bodied sons off to fight in a war. But they could not take the farmers son, since he was in a wheel chair.

What great fortune!” their friends and neighbors exclaimed. Maybe,” they replied.

That’s the end of the story. 

The lightbulb went on for me. Good and bad are so intertwined, it’s pointless to put life events into those buckets. That ole “Life is a journey, not a destination” thing is spot on. Only we don’t commit to it beyond memes and coffee mugs. We cling to outcomes. And anxiety seeps in when we desperately wish a thing does or doesn’t happen.

So my writing partner and I spent a year of research on happiness studies and neuroplasticity and another year developing a little philosophy we call the Tao of Maybe. The basic tenet: let go of attachment to outcome. That means accepting that hope is not your friend.

Hear me out, I’m really not a nihilistic monster. Hope seems positive, right? But it’s really the other side of the same coin as fear. Ask yourself, when you hope for something, do you feel at peace? Perhaps you feel joyful for a moment or hour or day, but as time passes does that hope begin to become tension, even fear, that the thing won’t happen?

The true opposite of fear (and hope) is trust. Trust in the unfolding. And to practice that, I embrace curiosity… a sense of wonder for what will happen next, rather than white-knuckled tension. Instead of, “I hope I get this house.” it’s “I wonder if I’ll get this house… or will it be a different one… or maybe I won’t buy a house right now and something will come up in six months that will make me glad I still have that deposit money…”

Fear can be a useful tool to identify danger and push us to action. But the residual thoughts are not useful. They’re dangerous to our health. And those persistent thoughts of doubt, worry and fear are really, really hard to ignore. Because we’re in the habit of following their well-worn neural pathways. Literal, physical pathways in our brains. The good news is that we can change them. With practice and persistence, we can retrain our brains. By identifying the unwanted thought and replacing it with a positive one, over and over, we create new, positive thought pathways that eventually become habits and the unwanted habitual thoughts fade. 

Remember that old fire drill from school – Stop, Drop and Roll? Most of us are fortunate enough not to have caught on fire, but our brains are on fire with stressful thoughts everyday, so we’ve repurposed that drill for sanity. Here’s how it works:

  • When I have an unpleasant thought, I STOP. Let’s say I’m in traffic and I’m getting road rage-y. I ask myself, what I can do, like maybe take an alternative route, call my boss to move a meeting, or call a neighbor to pick my kid up from school. I act on what I can.
  • Once I’ve taken the reasonable actions and can do no more, I DROPthe repetitive thought. It isn’t helping me any longer and I don’t want to bleed precious energy into reliving it (which will do nothing to fix it anyway).
  • Then I ROLLwith the outcome, wth curiosity. I have an extra 30 minutes in the car. I wonder, “Is there a new episode of a podcast I like?” “I wonder who on my catch-up list is around for a call.”

Sounds easier said than done, right? I know. But it works. When an unwanted thought is persistent, I have a few tricks: like visualizing the thing I want or don’t want as an object. I can set it outside, and close the door. I tell myself I can pick it up later if I really want to. It’s not like anyone is going to take it – no one wants that shit. I can also give the object over to (in my personal preference) the universe. Some may prefer to give it to God, or whatever power they deem higher than ourselves. I simply say, “I’m done with this thought now. I’ve done all I can. It’s yours now, to do what you will with it.” And I feel instant relief.

This pandemic has been the ultimate test. These are how my real and frightening thoughts play out in my inner dialogue:

  • I will be out of work for at least 6 months. Possibly much longer. > Productive thought I can act on… I’ll look into being a delivery driver and keep my eyes open for creative sources of income. 

  • I could rent out my home and live in a cheaper apartment. But if a renter can’t pay (and I also can’t evict) I have nowhere to live. > Productive thought to revisit later, as time tells.  
  • I could sell my home, but the market is probably already tanking. > Possible productive thought to revisit.
  • I could sell off my small 401K, but at a big loss right now. It might cover me for 6 months. Productive thought. This is what I might need to do. . 
  • I have no health insurance. If I get sick in a bad way, well, game over. > Not much I can do, but I did update my will!

I identified the fearful thoughts (STOP). I took reasonable actions and let go of the repetitive “no job, no money, no health insurance,” thoughts (DROP). And now I’m curious what my next source of income will look like, and how epic the gatherings will be when all of this is over (ROLL).

In order to stop going down those familiar thought pathways, I look for new positive ones to replace them: 

  • I, and the people I love, are healthy. 
  • No one I love is in jail, or being oppressed. (Sounds silly, but I remind myself that there is much I take for granted.)
  • I’ve survived bad shit before and come out better for it. (My mom was lost in the twin towers on 9/11.)
  • Where are the silver linings? I mean, I don’t have to go to work so I’ve finally got time to finish this book and work on a screenplay and do some fun home projects. I can share a glass of wine on a video call with my sister. I have a beautiful place in the mountains to visit. People are focusing on relationships instead of work and errands.
  • And here’s the one that really allows me to LET GO… If all of the worst case scenarios happen: death or devastating homelessness, do I want to spend my days up until that moment worried and depressed? Would the worry do anything to change the outcome? 

And suddenly the anxiety is gone, or greatly diminished. It may knock on my door again. But it gets easier and easier to let go. And I’m genuinely calm.  

I’m not saying not to take precautions! I am. And assuming I’m doing all I can, further worry about Covid19 won’t help me. Ironically (yay, I’m finally using that word in it’s proper context) worrying will weaken my immune system and make me more vulnerable to it. So I’m taking the actions I can, and letting go of the rest.

Many believe that energy goes where your thoughts flow. It’s been said that the “universe’ doesn’t hear good or bad in your thoughts, it only hears the what. So I’m deliberate about what I focus on.

I know this all sounds good in theory and hard to put into practice. But if you commit to the practice, you can retrain your brain. Take reasonable actions, limit your news intake, and let go. The only thing you have to lose is fear.

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