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The world around us appears to be moving through some kind of transformation. Change abounds. And wherever there is change, there is usually fear. And wherever there is fear, there is usually an effort to suppress it. Or, often, to make it go away altogether.

But that is not how fear works; we cannot make it go away. It is not designed to be wired out of our neurophysiology—that would be disastrous, as fear is a wise, discerning, and often lifesaving emotion. It is an emotion that can offer us the guidance we need to live in alignment with the truest, most authentic parts of who we are. But sometimes it is the case, like right now, that the conditions of the external environment feel so threatening and uncertain that our fear overwhelms us, and we lose our ability to use the wisdom it offers to inform our choices and light our way.

Our struggle to experience fear as guidance comes, in part, from our childhood where we are often not taught to understand and have compassion for our fear. Rather, we are told to “get over it,” or we are advised to ignore it, override it, and sometimes even, “transcend it.” Often, as children, we sit alone in our fear, with no one to comfort us and reassure us that everything will be okay. In such cases, we are left to our own devices to figure out what to do with our fear so we can successfully adapt to our environment, and feel safe and secure in our attachments to those we love and who are responsible for keeping us alive.

Lost in this approach to fear is the opportunity to learn the valuable role fear can play in our choices. Also lost is the opportunity to become skilled at regulating our fear so that it does not overwhelm us and cloud our perception. Moreover, when fear is deemed negative, feelings of shame for the fear we are experiencing arise and become associated with the fear we are feeling. Shame and fear then become linked up and are carried into our adulthood where we often feel painfully bad about ourselves if we are feeling afraid, worried, anxious, or overwhelmed. “What’s wrong with me? Other people don’t feel anxious about these things.” This, or some version of this, is a common refrain I hear in my practice. And it is simply not true.

With the pandemic, I have, naturally, seen a heightened fear response in my patients and in my unscientifi

c observations of the people around me; responses that often appear to be just as much about their past as they are about present reality. Even I have experienced old fear response patterns lately, reminding me of old experiences when I felt powerlessness in the face of threat; past experiences that tried to convince me that what I see happening in the present is exactly what happened in the past, so it’s time to panic because things are not going to end well. Thankfully, the insight I have gleaned from my own therapy has helped me to see that my initial reaction to the pandemic was informed by my trauma, not by the reality of what is happening in the here-and-now. This is the work I have been doing with my patients as well—honoring the natural fear reaction to the pandemic, while also helping them to see how their present fear response is also informed by their past trauma or past fear-based experiences wherein they felt powerless in the face of threat or overwhelming situations or circumstances.

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