I cannot call fear a friend. Fear is a companion whose influence has only become clear to me in the last 10 years. It visits me regularly, invisible yet powerful.
I have taped a sign right below my computer screen: “LET GO OF FEAR”. I seldom notice it, but every now and then it grabs my attention. In these moments I can shift, step back, and loosen up.
To me fear is the devourer which, given license to roam, makes me want to hide under the covers. Even just hovering nearby it makes me snap at people and lose interest in what others care about. It drains me of vitality.
Can you relate? What are your signs that fear is standing too close to you?
In the early days of co-parenting, my haunting and ever-present fears were, “Will my children survive all these upheavals and changes? Will I ever feel normal again and have a life that includes resting places for me?”
A specific fear arose after living in a new apartment for four months. I was becoming stressed and incoherent from lack of sleep: the upstairs neighbors didn’t work, and tromped around at all hours, waking me night after night. I realized I was afraid I couldn’t stay in that apartment, and there were no other apartments close to my ex’s house. I stood back from my fear as well as I could to calm myself, and considered my options. Talk to them? I had already tried that. Take sleeping pills? They had me almost bursting into tears at work. Buy a house? My ex had said firmly he couldn’t afford to buy me out of our former home, so I had no money. Stalemate.
Finally a new idea came to me. I wrote to his sister with whom I had been close, explaining the situation and asking her to talk to him. She didn’t respond directly, but two weeks later my ex agreed to pay me out. With great relief I started house-hunting.
Fear stood so often at my shoulder that I took it for granted. My body stayed contracted and tight. A friend at work once commented, “You seem to have fear about how our project will turn out,” and I remember thinking, Well, duh…, of course, not understanding that there was any other way to be.
Fear isn’t all bad. Like our capacity to feel pain in our bodies, fear is a signal that important things are under threat. By pointing to things we should pay attention to, it can keep us safe. When we use fear as information, it can go hand-in-hand with, “I’ll make sure the children are okay, I will do whatever it takes to protect them and give them a good life.” This determination is powerful fuel for parents. It can take us through months and years of uncertainty, dealing with challenging ex-spouses, and having minimal time for ourselves.
But when fear paralyzes us, or stresses us for weeks at a time, it’s too close. What helps when fear overwhelms us?
8 Steps to Take When Overwhelmed with Fear
1. Notice it and label it
When feeling afraid, your body will often give signals, such as a stomach-twisting feeling, tight shoulders, or a headache.
2. Ask, “What is this fear about, exactly?”
Put your answer into words: “I am afraid that….” You may have more than one fear at a time. The step of naming and untangling them may present a new perspective.
3. Remember that fear is often about things that haven’t happened yet
It exists in your mind. Co-parents’ fears can include the other parent moving away, or taking you to court.
4. Make space for yourself to calm down
Stand up, move around, swing your arms. Take five deep slow breaths. Step outside and look at the sky. Move right into this minute, away from the future. You are giving the elbow to fear, telling it to stand further away.
Write down all the actions you can think of that may help improve the situation — brainstorm. In the earlier example, my list included approaching the upstairs tenants, moving, and taking sleeping pills.
6. Size up your list
Which actions are most important and doable? Which can you do by yourself? Which can others help you with? Make a plan for the next three months. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
7. Shift your focus
If the fear crowds in close again, remind yourself that you are dealing with it and shift your focus. Tell it to back off, you’ve heard its message.
8. Create rituals that nourish you and your kids
Perhaps it’s a game of Monopoly with them on Saturdays. One of my favorite bedtime rituals with my younger son was going through our day. He’d ask, “What did you do today, Mommy? And then what? And then what?” And I would ask him the same things. Those precious few minutes each evening made us feel safe.
If, in spite of all your efforts, fear is dominating your life, then consider seeking professional help. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to fortify our resources when needed.