How I Cope with Strong Fears
You can use these approaches with any strong emotion
I am writing this two days before cataract surgery on my second eye. Cataract removal is one of the safest medical surgeries that can be done.
I know that. But I tend toward fear. So, the first surgery was a marvelous chance to work with pre-surgery jitters.
According to a long-time Ayurvedic expert, the ancient medical system from India, our emotional tendencies are encoded in our DNA.
The system defines three body types and their corresponding emotional tendencies.
Vata - Anxiety and excitement
Pitta - Anger and aggression
Kapha - Sadness and depression
Some people are predominantly a single type. But most people are a combination of two types. I’m a Vatta-Pitta, for example.
According to the theory, If you’re a fearful Vata type, you’ll always lean that way. You can learn to calm your fear considerably and not act on it. But under stress or threat, this is the core emotion most likely to arise.
Whether they’re encoded in our DNA, our brain, or what Buddhist’s call the “alaya,” or storehouse of consciousness, there’s no point in fighting one’s emotional propensities. Fighting only always makes them stronger.
It’s much better to embrace your emotional tendencies and work with them in a friendly way.
I felt psychologically prepared for my first surgery, but it was delayed for almost a month due to the Omicron variant. As my new date approached, I was surprised to find my mind suddenly going in periods of fear.
Here are some of the ways I worked with the fear that arose.
I cleared my schedule the weekend and day before surgery and relaxed as much as possible. I removed all other possible stressors from my life. I didn’t pressure myself to write even though I knew I would temporarily lose some momentum on Medium during my recovery period. I didn’t pressure myself to do anything.
I didn’t sit around like a lump on the couch. I did housework because that grounds me. I listened to inspiring spiritual teachings because that uplifts me. I watched a funny movie because it’s hard to stress when you’re smiling.
It may not be possible to remove all stressors in your life before a major stressor like surgery. But try to minimize them. Keep your body calm and safe.
I rarely fall asleep quickly on any night. But three nights before surgery, out of the blue, my mind filled with “what if” thoughts, imagining every possible thing that could go wrong.
I had already decided I didn’t want to create unnecessary stress and fear ruminating about things that are will likely never happen and recalled that commitment.
In the past, I automatically blended with my emotions. Now, I’ve done enough mindfulness practice so there’s often at least a wee bit of space between me and my emotions.
So, I caught these fear thoughts and redirected my mind to the present moment. I felt the mattress cradle my body. I listened to the silence that surrounded me. I found peace again and eventually drifted off to sleep.
It was easy that time. But more intensity would visit soon.
The day before surgery, I woke at 3:00 am thanks to my kitties.
I found myself wound up by the memory of an undesirable encounter with my new primary care physician. My mind-body simultaneously launched into fear scenarios about the upcoming surgery.
But this time, I couldn’t shake it with mindfulness.
My nervous system was already over-aroused. My limbic system had hijacked my brain and the prefrontal cortex had gone offline. The prefrontal cortex is where our analytical ability, mindfulness, and empathy live. These abilities weren’t available to me in the moment. The fear had become a very body-based experience rather than just a few thoughts floating in my mind.
I tossed and turned and tried my hardest to find sleep again, but to no avail. So, I got up, turned the internet on, and read a few articles on Medium. Doing so, helped my nervous system get back into balance.
After a while, I went back to bed and eventually fell into a deep sleep.
When your brain gets hijacked by a strong fear or trauma, you need to self-nurture instead of trying to contact the fear through mindfulness. Mindfulness may not be possible in that moment and you might trigger yourself more. Instead, use whatever resources you have in your toolkit to take good self-care, whether it’s going for a walk, talking to a friend, or reading a book.
In my case, distraction worked perfectly. I don’t feel guilty about that. I’m dedicated to mindfulness but I haven’t fully mastered it yet.
4. Calming Remedies
The afternoon before the surgery, I decided to take a calming remedy. Having witnessed my body slipping into fear mode the morning before, I opted for a calming remedy so I could get a good night’s sleep before surgery and not re-trigger myself.
Whether you go for a prescription tranquilizer or something natural like Rescue Remedy, don’t feel bad for doing so. Do what you need to do to keep your nervous system calm before a major event like surgery.
Please, Don’t Be Hard on Yourself
Sometimes, we can be hard on ourselves, expecting that we should be able to be in charge of our emotions and chastising ourselves when we’re not.
But we’re only human.
Self-compassion and self-kindness always trumps the inner critic.
The key in all this is to know yourself and use the appropriate remedy that will bring you back to center. Sometimes, you’ll be able to be mindful and let emotions slide off your back without a second thought. Other times, you’ll need to use alternative approaches.
Accept yourself, no matter what.
I’m writing this section three days after surgery two.
Both surgeries went amazingly well. There was nothing to fear. And in fact, after realizing that during surgery one, I wasn’t afraid before surgery two.
Even though you must be conscious during the surgery to follow directions (“look at the red light”), you’re given relaxing drugs, which diminish fear. At least that’s the approach of my eye surgeon.
Even though there was nothing to fear, I won’t criticize myself for that bout of intense limbic system highjacking. In fact, I’m proud of myself for being as aware as I was and choosing the appropriate remedy in each instance of fear.
Now, I’m looking very cool in my sunglasses as I wait for the post-op light sensitivity to wear off.
You can use these approaches with any strong emotions. I hope something in this piece will help you the next time you face runaway emotions.
My Latest Articles
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Until Next Time
The essence of this message is to accept yourself no matter what. The human psyche is complex. The brain and the body holds on to wounds, traumas, and hurts that we may not be aware of consciously.
So always be kind and gentle with yourself. Sometimes, you’ll win the mindfulness prize. Mindfulness is powerful. It can help us heal and transform our emotional patterns. But sometimes, we need a different approach. Use whatever’s appropriate given your capacity in any given moment.
Thank you for reading!
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Until next time, stay safe, be happy, and let your love flow. Sending you all my love and best wishes.
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