Reality Check: Fear and the Unknown

If you’ve ever had a serious medical issue, then it’s safe to say you have experienced fear. That fear may be about unknowns: How will this turn out? Will I be ok?

When I was catching up with Sara some months ago, she wasn’t her usual self. She looked tired and drained. Turns out that she had developed a painful condition.

Yet Sara’s biggest concern wasn’t her current pain; it was fear of future unknowns.

You see, one day in the waiting room, Sara had a chat with someone with a similar condition. She learned that this person suffers constant pain, no relief in sight.

You can imagine Sara’s fear. The physical pain that she experiences is bad enough. Now she’s terrified of a future where she could be completely incapacitated.

I’d love to be able to tell you that my wise, comforting words helped. Truth is, I couldn’t think of much to say. Realistically, we don’t know what will happen; it’s beyond our control.

Sometimes, if you can’t think of anything helpful to say, it’s just as well to stay quiet.

Sara is now looking and feeling much better! Why? A new therapy. Now with more good days than bad, her optimistic attitude has returned. Sara is back.

I’m so glad that Sara’s story took this happy turn, but that won’t always happen. As long as there are humans, difficult situations will occur.

To help me be better prepared when faced with a worrying situation, I wrote this short set of choice theory-based questions. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful too.

Start by asking, “What are you feeling?” and “What is happening in your body?”

For an anxious state like Sara’s, feelings are worried, afraid. Physical symptoms include upset stomach, shallow breathing, sweaty palms.

Next, ask “What are you thinking?” Sara’s thinking is, “I’m scared. Bad things could happen that I can’t handle.”

Then, “What are you doing?” Sara is spending time sitting, almost afraid to move. She’s withdrawn from people; staying in bed; closing in on herself.

Those feeling-physical-thinking-acting answers demonstrate her anxious state.

Now ask, “How you would like to be feeling?” That’s easy enough to answer: Safe! Healthy! Assured that everything will be ok.

How would your body react if you had those feelings? “It would be calm. Relaxed. I could sleep, eat, and feel good.”

It’s hard to change feelings or physical reactions directly. So, what thoughts go along with those feelings and physical reactions?

Thoughts are: “I can handle this. I am strong and resilient. I have people who care. This is difficult, but parts of my life are good and in control.”

What actions go with those thoughts? “I’d tell my friends about my situation. I would eat properly and exercise. I would distract myself with activities I enjoy. I would ask questions and learn. I would control the activities that I can control.”

And there is the starting point for change: to control the thoughts and the actions that we can control.

For Sara, looking back, we see that all that apprehension about living as an invalid was a waste. It didn’t happen. And although things are not perfect, it’s going to be manageable.

Key here is: The fear didn’t help. If anything, the fear probably hurt. Days where the physical pain was not so intense were overwhelmed by Sara’s fear of what might lie ahead. She was missing her life.

While we can’t easily change our feelings and physicality, we can deliberately change thoughts and actions.

That may not make a difference in the situation. Then again, it may. It certainly helps us to stay motivated, to seek out treatments, to do the best we can and make the most of every day.

What do you think?

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