During a season where fear plays a major role, a time when the demons are exorcised on All Hallows’ Eve, there’s some spooky stuff creeping up around the country. It’s not fear of drivers who text or fear of heart disease—it’s fear of the Ebola virus. It’s on television, it’s in the papers, it’s on the web. There are updates all day long about the latest case, the latest breakdown in security, the latest reason Ebola may find YOU.
That these fears are mostly irrational is not being heard. Quick Google searches can quickly show just how unlikely you are to contract the virus. If just taking a breath after reading the statistics doesn’t help, there are sites that discuss prevention. I don’t have all the facts, but what needs to be discussed is just what breeds this fear in people.
Fear is one of those emotions some people like to call “negative.” I’m not against this, as it’s not an emotion I ever really look forward to having. Sure, fear can be helpful. It can let us know that we need to be careful, and it can keep us from taking too many risks. Sadly, those of us who take big risks are usually the ones whose fear meter is too low, and those of us who rarely take risks often see fear where there’s none to be found (sounds like anxiety, yes, as they go together quite often).
If we can be aware of our fear so that it becomes a tool and not a detriment, fear can be adaptive and helpful. Unfortunately, one of the things fear excels at is stopping us from thinking. Without getting into the brain science, let’s just say that in the fight, flight, or freeze response to a fearful stimulus, the most helpful reaction gets shut down.
Ebola is not that person on the subway who just threw a soda can at you. This actually happened to me a few months ago. I instinctively got up, moved toward part of the car with more people, and then moved to the next car. Only then did I take stock and think about what to do. Only then did I reflect on my actions—was that the smartest way to respond? Could I have ignored it? Could I have engaged her in conversation? Could I have confronted her? There was no time. My fear worked well, meaning: I’m safe.
Ebola is different. Ebola is allowing us time to think. If we sit with our fear—sit with it in a mindful way, not in an obsessive way that just feeds the fear—we can learn from it. Is it bringing up past fears? When I sit with current fears, I’m often transported back to when I was temping in the financial district of New York City on the morning of 9/11; the sense of powerlessness was overwhelming, I knew little about what was happening, and I felt there was no decision I could make that would be sure to keep me safe. I think back to the fears of the unknown when I graduated college and had my bachelor of music with no work prospects. I think back to being left home alone by my parents for the first time.
No, the idea is not to ignore this virus altogether; nor is it to deny your feelings. It is to sit with the feeling and find its seeds. Personally, I’m making some different choices—not consuming as much media about Ebola, making sure I get a flu shot, asking medical people (just in case) if there’s something they know that I don’t.
These aren’t a cure for my fears, though, and that’s the point. The fear is in me. I can choose to feed it and make myself more miserable or I can choose to engage with it in a way that doesn’t stop me from thinking and doesn’t let my feelings run amok.
It’s almost Halloween, and that’s what haunted houses are for.
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