On Fear

Dear fellow Hoyas,

Over two decades ago, I was diagnosed with cancer.  I was in my 20s at the time, and I would like to share with you how I have learned to deal with uncertainty.

Uncertainty as we all know produces fear.  A common reason for this fear is the tendency we have in the absence of certainty to imagine worst-possible scenarios.  For me, fear shows up in two ways.  One is concrete, and the other is general.  Concrete fear is helpful.  I recognize it because it moves me to act productively.  Over the years, it has motivated me to eat well and keep my doctors’ appointments.  More recently, fear has moved me to stay on top of the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to prepare my family for social distancing, and if necessary, sheltering in place.

General fear, on the other hand, feels more like I’m circling the drain.  It produces lots of spinning, but no helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) moves.  When I notice it, I know now to address it using one of the following approaches.

The first is to pay attention to my thoughts.  If I am imagining worst-case scenarios, for example, I try to remind myself of all the times I have worried and nothing bad has happened.  My great-uncle used to say that people are terribly one-sided.  We suffer in anticipation of bad outcomes, yet we rarely celebrate in anticipation of good ones, even when the odds are similar.

When questioning my fears doesn’t work, I shift to acceptance.  I experience feelings as having both a mental and a physical component.  When I am afraid, for example, I get a knot in my stomach.  If I stop what I am doing and focus all of my attention on the physical sensation (rather than the subject of my fear), the sensation passes.  Typically, it grows and then fades in less than a minute as long as I don’t try to interrupt or control it.

Lastly, when these strategies don’t work, I turn to distraction.  Centuries ago, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote about our natural capacity for distraction.  We’re really good at it, and in times like these, we may as well use it to our benefit.  If you have work, then work.  If you’ve been putting off learning a hobby, use the extra time now to develop it.  If neither of these appeals to you, do something that feels more generative.  My distraction these days is to enjoy funny videos sent by my family in Spain.  They are finding ways to laugh and that is a salve.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we are all going through this together.  We don’t have to wonder why somebody is having a hard day, and instead of reacting, we can respond with understanding and care.

May you be well,

Yolanda Ruisánchez Gruendel (L’95)

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