Illness and Fear

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The emotions that come with chronic conditions can be as bad as or worse than the physical symptoms. Right now, I need some help dealing with fear.

If you have diabetes, it’s appropriate to fear complications. I don’t have diabetes, but I have multiple sclerosis (MS). With MS, there are also complications, and they can take away your ability to walk, use your hands, talk, or do much of anything else.

That’s a lot to be afraid of. With diabetes, blindness, kidney failure, amputation, and neuropathy are scary, too. But what do you do with your fears? How do you keep them from paralyzing you? Might there even be a way to make fear serve you?

Not Just Health
I have other fears that make living more difficult. For years, I was in despair over global warming. I had studied the greenhouse effect for years before it became common knowledge, and I came to believe the world was coming to an end.

Maybe it is. But I couldn’t stand believing that my children and the rest of the world had no future. What’s the point of doing anything if we’re all doomed within 100 years?

So I started reading more from the global warming skeptics, and they have some good points. Temperatures have actually gone down in the last two or three years. I started to feel better. Maybe the greenhouse effect isn’t so bad, after all.

That felt good; like a big weight had been taken off me. Then last week, I read about 106° temperatures in Seattle and Portland. Now I’m thinking maybe we’re doomed after all.

Of course, climate is just one fear. There’s the economic crisis, the health-care disaster, the wars, and more. Then there are the usual worries that most people have: concerns about children, parents, spouses, paying the bills, and all that… It all blends together with my fears about my body. Sometimes it makes it hard to get up in the morning.

Dealing with Fear
Fear can keep us awake night and keep us stressed all day. For me, it means I have to fight my way clear of depression almost every day. I usually win the fight and manage to stay happy, but it’s a lot of work. I need to exercise and to change destructive thoughts every day.

So what is the best way to deal with fears? Is it best to ignore them or deny them, or face them or what? I’ve written about this in my book The Art of Getting Well, but I think there’s more to learn. So I did a Google search for “dealing with fear.”

According to the Buddhist Web site Dealing with Fear, we can split fears into two categories: things we can do something about, and things we can’t. Fear can help by calling attention to things that need changing. For example, a smoker’s fear of lung cancer could lead him to stop smoking. You could say that fear of blindness or kidney failure could encourage a person to put more effort into controlling his blood glucose. That kind of fear might help, if you believe you can actually make a change.

But there are always things you cannot control. We are all going to die, no matter how good we are at self-management. That smoker could stop puffing and still get cancer. I don’t even know if there’s anything effective I can do for my MS or not, although I certainly try.

Managing Fear
In most scary situations, we have some control, but not total control. If you have diabetes, you can do things to prevent complications, but there are no guarantees. So much depends on environment, genetics, social support, and luck. How do you cope with such uncertainty?

Religion and philosophy can help. The Buddhists say the root of fear is illusion — believing that we have control over our lives, or having too much attachment to the things and people in the physical world. We should just relax and accept that the world is a dream play, and we are just characters in it.

Christians and Muslims say that everything is in God’s hands. Whatever happens is part of His plan, so there’s no sense worrying about it. The Pagans believe that we are just tiny creatures taking part in the great pageant of life, and we should celebrate the fact that we are here.

Psychology helps me — I think, “What is the worst thing that could happen? How would I get through that, or if it involves my death, how would my family and community get through it?” Then perhaps I can take some steps to make things easier for them and for myself in the worst-case scenarios. After you’ve done all you can, it’s easier to stop worrying.

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote a book called Staring at the Sun, which is about fear of death. His main idea is that fear of death is stronger if you feel you haven’t really lived. He advises people to go out and do what is important to them in life, and their fears of death will diminish.

I think it’s the same way with fears of complications — if you’re doing the best you can, then just relax and let the universe function. If you’re worried about global warming, you should stop or cut down on driving, reduce energy use as much as possible, maybe plant some trees, and then let it go. (Of course, political action might reduce your fears, if you find some form of action you believe will actually help.)

Of course, all that’s easy for me to say. But what do you do with your fears? I know we all have them. Please share what works for you by commenting here.

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