Many scary times are neither sought nor enjoyed, and we would hope to avoid them – things like a cancer diagnosis, unemployment, an accident, homelessness, domestic violence. But scary times happen, and the common denominator is fear – fear of the unknown, fear of financial ruin, fear of death, fear of pain, fear of dependency, just to name a few. The scary times can immobilize us, diminish us, and overwhelm us. Coping with scary times is a matter of finding a way to get through them and managing the anxiety, fear and uncertainty.
When I feel anxious or scared, I have “go-to” strategies that help me feel less anxious. Mine include reading a novel, in-depth cleaning (focusing on a task at hand and seeing results), playing a game on my phone (distraction), raking pine needles (physical activity), watching my favorite college football team, crocheting (concentrating on the pattern), meditative coloring (getting lost in the colors and designs), getting accurate information, or talking through my fears with a friend or family member. These are just a few I use. My first order of business, though, is to recognize when I’m feeling anxious or fearful, and then to decide which coping strategy or strategies to activate. Coping strategies are unique and personal – meaning my coping strategies won’t be yours. Your physical coping strategy might be hiking or tennis. Your distraction might be watching a movie or cooking. You might find retail therapy, a bubble bath, journaling, or prayer effective. We each must decide what activity or technique is therapeutic in reducing feelings of helplessness and fear.
For severe anxiety and panic attacks, grounding techniques are helpful as a “go-to” strategy for managing both strong emotions or traumatic memories. There are a number of grounding techniques, but one of the most familiar is called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This technique uses the five senses and works like this: Name five things you can see. Focus on four things you can feel (sun, wind, fabric, etc.). Name three things you can hear. Identify two things you can smell. Focus on one thing you can taste or a taste that you like. If you (like me) have trouble remembering this sequence, a simpler one is the 3,3,3 Rule: Name three things you can see. Name three things you can hear. Move three parts of your body (ankles, fingers, toes, etc.).
Deep breathing is another technique that is calming and helps manage the emotional and physical reactions of feeling scared. I remember a therapist telling me that when she taught clients the benefits of deep breathing and how to use the technique to manage anxiety, some would be skeptical of the efficacy because it was such a simple thing to do. She said, “I think they were expecting something more complicated and questioned whether something so easy would be effective.”
Complex techniques are not required to manage the scary times. Distraction (so simple) is a great technique. Physical activity works. Getting accurate information works (rather than assuming or going down rabbit holes). Completing tasks (that you can focus on) works. You might not be able to focus on reading a novel, but you can shred that stack of documents. The key is to find what works for you.
It takes courage to face scary times. Typically, we see others as courageous, but not ourselves. But we are. It takes courage to start a new venture or a new relationship. It takes courage to go to the cancer center and begin new treatments. Courage is facing the fear, maybe being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.
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SUE'S GIFT BLOG
Sherry Martin is the Patient Services Director for Sue's Gift, a licensed clinical social worker with over thirty years of experience in the field of oncology social work, and author of the book, Beginning Again: Tools for the Journey through Grief: A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators of a Grief Support Group. Sherry lives with her husband in Woodland Park, Colorado.
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