These are really challenging times for everyone and there are a number of reasons why anxiety is likely to be increasing among a whole host of people. Numerous factors like the health and safety of oneself and loved ones, financial insecurity, job insecurity, loss of predictability about the future, political and racial/social instability, etc are all compounded by a virus that we still don’t know a whole lot about.
In this post I want to explore the personal fear of getting sick and the real fears that lie underneath it.
On a personal level I think we are dealing with two main fears.
The first is that as humans we need to feel like we have agency in any situation. There has not been enough talk about what one can do personally to minimize the risk of a bad outcome if one does come down with the virus. I believe that this lack of personal power and feeling like one has some degree of control over the situation is the cause for a lot of anxiety that’s going on right now. Life is uncertain, but we need to feel like our actions matter. There is something about the lack of feeling like we can do something that causes a lot of fear and anxiety. The serenity prayer famously teaches us to do something about the things we can control and leave to faith the things that we can’t. It’s important to understand fully what we can control before we accept what comes from giving up control.
The second fear and the one I want to discuss in the rest of the post is the fear of getting sick. What is the fear of getting sick about really? It’s really about a fear that we won’t be able to handle the unpleasant body sensations that come from getting sick. Or maybe we fear that we won’t be able to handle the emotions that might come up if a loved one becomes sick. Here, I will focus on a personal level, but I think that all of this can be applied to worry about the health of a loved one as well.
Fear of getting sick is all about a lack of trust that we can handle what comes up during the experience of illness. It’s a lack of trust in our own ability to handle life’s difficulties. This lack of trust comes from our mind’s resistance to experiencing life just as it is.
Sickness is a part of life and at some point we will all get sick. We will also all age and all die. There is inherent sufferent in getting sick. Frankly, when we are sick it doesn’t feel very good in the body. The fear and anxiety about getting sick, however, are not part of the natural process of sickness and healing. Both the anxiety and fear that come from anticipating getting sick, and also the anxiety from resisting the sensations of sickness when we experience it are products of the thinking mind. They are products of minds that are trying to reduce uncertainty and keep us safe. Our minds want to guarantee our safety so they go searching for anything that may produce difficult sensations in the body in an effort to ward off the causes of suffering before we become affected by them.
The problem, however, is that life doesn’t work like that. We can take the general necessary precautions and we can create a sense of agency and empowerment, but at the end of the day there are no guarantees in life. Living a peaceful life involves opening to the uncertainty that bad things may happen. It’s easier to open to this uncertainty when we have the courage and the necessary skills to handle what comes up. I.e to handle the unpleasant sensations in the body that difficult life events produce.
In general there are three unpleasant experiences that come with the fear of getting sick
- The unpleasant sensations of anxiety and fear that come from worrying and anticipating. Here the mind is trying to predict what things will be like and if we can handle it.
- The actual sensations of sickness in the body. This is a natural part of life
- The anxiety and contraction that comes from resisting the actual sensations of sickness in the body.
Only number two is something that we need to experience. Numbers one and three are suffering that we add on top of the suffering that’s naturally a part of life.
Based on my own experience with the fear of being sick, (which was exacerbated when I started to experience panic a few years ago) I believe that a fear of unpleasant body sensations is at the root of this fear. The fear is that we will not be able to handle these unpleasant body sensations AND that we will panic and our minds will create more unpleasant sensations of anxiety that we will also not be able to handle. If the fear is of body sensations and not being able to handle them, then the way to freedom from this anxiety is not to get rid of the fear of getting sick (which has a benefit in that it keeps us from reckless actions) but to learn to befriend this fear. As we train in our lives to befriend difficult experiences in whatever context, we are cultivating the ability to get curious about and turn towards the difficult sensations of sickness when and if they arise. This courage is developed by body centered investigation where we are teaching the mind that it doesn’t have to go off into a story any more. We are teaching the mind that the present moment is a safe place to be.
With training we can develop the hope and courage that we can call on our mindfulness and compassion practices when we do experience sickness so that we can get curious about the natural process of sickness that is part of life, and not add the extra suffering that comes from the mind resisting the experience. If it turns out our minds resist the sensations of getting sick then we will have also developed the courage to be with the sensations of anxiety that come up as a result. We can choose to welcome those sensations as well.
*It’s important to note that life isn’t easy and turning towards the difficult can be challenging and also not always the most skillful action in any given context. Often illness can be very difficult at these times a more skillful response may be to put our attention elsewhere.
The single most powerful tool that I have found to work with difficult body sensations and emotions is the acronym RAIN.
I’ll walk you through the steps of RAIN here as it might apply to the fear of getting sick. This applies both to actually being sick and the hyper-awareness and panic around any unpleasant body sensation that the mind predicts might be proof that we are getting sick. We can also use RAIN to work with the mind’s anxious resistance to the experience of illness.
Recognize- Recognize that you are experiencing something unpleasant in the body. Just become aware of it. Notice the mind’s tendency to make a story about that sensation and just allow the mind to be as it is and bring your attention back into the body.
Accept/Allow- Just allow the unpleasant sensations to be there without resisting them. If this is really difficult (if often is for me) then the A of RAIN can really be about forming the intention to be with these unpleasant sensations. We are taking our awareness out of the mind and its stories about the sensations and what’s happening to us and putting our attention in the body where we can experience the felt sense of the present moment.
Investigate- Investigation here is all about getting really curious about what is happening in the body. What does sickness or the fear of sickness actually feel like in the body? This may be difficult depending on the severity of the unpleasant sensations, but the idea is to really just get curious about what’s happening. Maybe as you investigate you will see that the actual experience of being sick is very different from your mind’s story about it? To start, pick the area in your body where the sensations are strongest and start to investigate there.
This investigation is about getting into the felt sense of the experience in your body. It’s not a mental exercise. If being with the most difficult sensation is too difficult, then certainly start with a sensation that’s easier. The point here isn’t to go to the edge of your safety and ability to be with the difficult. The idea is to find an aspect of your experience that you can rest your attention on and get curious about.
I find that with the fear of getting sick there is a fine line between investigation and panic. If we turn towards the unpleasant too much or too strongly then the mind may want to get involved again. When this is the case and we feel like we are losing trust in turning towards the difficult, we can turn to safety and the N of RAIN.
Nurture- Nurture is all about asking that hurt sick place inside of us what it most needs. There is no one answer here. We can just get curious and find out. Maybe that place needs love or caring touch or to remember the good times with family and friends. Just find out what you can offer to yourself and experiment. I find that when times are the most difficult I use images of family members caring for me or images of my dog sitting with Jesus and the Buddha in a forest that I would like to visit. Nurture can be anything that elicits a felt sense of soothing care.
RAIN is not a linear process. As you feel more safe and supported by nurturing, you might feel like it’s time to investigate again. As you feel you need more resourcing and safety, then you can turn to offering nurturing and compassion towards yourself once again. This is really all about developing the courage to relax into our experience without resisting it.
Sometimes, especially when there are unpleasant physical sensations in the body, it’s skillful to take a break from practice. We can put our minds somewhere else or do something we enjoy if that’s possible. We could also have a chat with a loved one that makes us feel good.
RAIN is a mindfulness and compassion practice meaning that the greatest benefits will come from practicing these skills throughout our lives, not waiting for the day we are sick to start practicing. Whenever we experience anxiety or pain or other difficult emotions we can call upon RAIN and train our ability to be with the difficult. We can train our ability to befriend our experience every day in the present moment. Then when difficult times come, and they inevitably will, we will feel like we have the proper skills and confidence to be with our experience. We may find that our minds are less resistant. Sure, things may be unpleasant but we are now somehow more able to bear the suffering that’s a part of life.
These are trying times for everyone, and there is no better time to practice cultivating mindfulness and compassion skills that can hold us and support us in both the good times and the challenging ones. Here’s to your health and the health of your loved one’s in these strange times!