Coronavirus: The journey from fear to freedom
The current discussion on the gradual easing of the lockdown highlights a key feature of counselling strategies such as CBT and solution-focused therapy. This type of counselling encourages a conscious move to change thought patterns, actions and outcomes, even if that activity is initially uncomfortable.
A well-known phrase which walks alongside these action-based counselling techniques is "face the fear and do it anyway". This even formed the title of a popular book by Susan Jeffers offering encouragement and motivation. It is often suggested that the inspiration behind this type of phrase can be traced back to Roosevelt’s famous exhortation at his presidential inauguration. Roosevelt’s words, "all we have to fear is fear itself" have been repeated many times and with good reason.
The strength of the words lies in their simplicity. When faced with the prospect of having to do something which feels uncomfortable, there may be apprehension and fear. That's understandable. Unfortunately, the more we hesitate, the stronger that trepidation may become. The longer we stand on the sidelines, the harder it is to become engaged.
We are all likely to have experienced this form of hesitation at some time in our lives. It may be plucking up the courage to plunge into the cold sea, deciding whether to walk into the manager’s office to ask for a raise or summing up the resolve to tell a partner some bad news. The situations can be very different, but the feelings are similar. "I want to do this but I am not sure if I can". When we hesitate we may begin to catastrophise. Our imaginations can start to run riot with thoughts of "What if...". Our concerns escalate and as a consequence, we remain trapped and rooted to the spot.
Rather than allow isolation to become imprisonment, it is a time for our inner child to stand up, grasp the hand of the adult and to walk back out there.
Much of the current debate around the gentle easing of the lockdown fit this pattern. Although for too many people this has been an awful time, with every case having the potential to become a personal tragedy, we are now learning that this dreadful pandemic can be managed and contained. There are techniques that can effectively tackle the risks around the infection. These are now allowing people to begin to engage again, albeit with slightly different behaviours, e.g. social distancing.
Yet the most powerful lesson very successfully taught in the opening weeks of the crisis was that the key strategy was to stay home. We were told that if we remained cocooned within our private space, we would be safe. That lesson was learned and despite those awful personal tragedies, particularly within care homes, the disaster of an overwhelmed NHS was averted.
Given the success of that mantra, perhaps we should not be surprised if for some the prospect of now venturing out is rather alarming. It seems as though a new perspective is required to help bring about a change of viewpoint.
A new starting point could be a more open acceptance of that fear, and an acknowledgement that it is perfectly acceptable to be apprehensive about reengaging with the wider world. This should not be viewed as a symptom of emotional fragility or a lack of courage or resolve, but a perfectly natural reaction to that which we have all gone through.
In order to face the fear, we should first recognise that feeling and be OK with it. There is reluctance within counselling work to use the word ‘normal’ and rightly so. We are all products of different environments, cultures and experiences, and the term ‘normal’ can seem lazy and inappropriate. When allied to our selfish genes, these personal, social and cultural differences ensure that each of us will often respond in slightly different ways to the same stimuli, and for good reasons.
Nevertheless, perhaps on this occasion, the use of the term 'normal' is appropriate. It seems right in the present circumstances to acknowledge that it will be normal to feel uncomfortable or uneasy when we first walk outside. As this time of self-isolation ends and the freedom to return to the world gathers pace, many of us will be faced with that slightly edgy feeling time and time again. That will be ever-present in the coming weeks and months as we walk back for the first time into a certain shop or school, and then eventually to a pub or restaurant. And for some, that will not be a slight sense of unease but a stronger feeling of anxiety, worry or outright fear.
Perhaps the key message at this time is that we should be tolerant of ourselves and our current way of being. Rather than belittle or criticise that fearful part of ourselves, we can instead try to extend an internal hand of support.
There is a world to re-engage with. It is time to reclaim our freedom.
We all have within us reminders of the child we once were. That child will have encountered occasions when she or he was fearful of a new experience. There would have been a concern at going out, or going to, or going with. Within an ideal world, there would have been supportive parental voices which encouraged us to be brave, to take a deep breath and to go forward into that new situation. Whatever our experiences were back then, perhaps now is the time for us as adults to recreate that inner calming parental voice. Our starting point is to look where possible at self-managing our vulnerability.
For some, to be free to return to social life will be exhilarating. For others, there will be difficult feelings of concern. If those feelings are overwhelming perhaps a starting point is to acknowledge them. To recognise that these concerns exist for a good reason. That unease or fear has in recent months helped to keep you safe, but now is a time to change.
Rather than allow isolation to become imprisonment, it is a time for our inner child to stand up, grasp the hand of the adult and to walk back out there. There is a world to re-engage with. It is time to reclaim our freedom.
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