The day before my husband’s severe traumatic brain injury was the last day I felt truly safe in the world. Although I had been through some emotional hard times in my life, nothing had ever threatened me like the blunt force of seeing my husband strong and healthy one moment and lying near death the next. Add to that, day after day of waiting to see if he would live or die, the slow grinding recovery, and the dawning realization that he was, in some ways, irreversibly changed.
A car hit my husband, so it’s cars I fear. Cars and the devastation they can wreak. Cars hydroplaning on a rainy day, brakes not functioning, cars careening on an icy road. I still breathe deep while driving in traffic when visibility is poor. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. We should all be vigilant behind the wheel. What is surprising is how drastically my body still physically reacts ten years later. I may go months without so much as a thought about danger while driving, then there’s a near miss, and my body quakes with electric shocks and tingles of distress as my heart beats wildly out of control. At least I still keep driving. I’m determined to outfox this fear that sneaks up and jabs me in the ribs when I least expect it.
Recently, I asked myself a tough question. Is it cars I’m afraid of? Not entirely. There are many layers to my fear: fear of suffering, fear of loss, and fear of uncertainty, of losing control.
I used to think I could outsmart fear by being vigilant, but it turned out my vigilance fed my fear. Vigilance in overdrive kept me awake, on the lookout for threats that never appeared. Vigilance as a way of life is no fun; it keeps you up nights worrying; it weighs on you all day long like a heavy wet coat.
Looking away helps. Looking elsewhere — toward people unencumbered by fear, toward groups engaged in communal activities like fitness, theater, or literary events, toward projects that overcrowd my mind with curiosity and purpose — that’s what has helped.
Slowly, very slowly, fear has been elbowed out of my life, replaced by joyful encounters, insightful conversations, meaningful work, and friendships. I’ve often said that fear is more debilitating than any injury or illness. I believe it’s true. Fear paralyzes us. The good news is this: we can work through our fear if we choose. We can name it, manage it, and maybe even surprise it one day by laughing in the face of it.
Ten Tips for Managing Fear
- Figure out what you’re really afraid of. It’s harder than you think, and it’s not always what you think.
- Ask yourself: Are my fears rational? Why am I blowing things up in my head?
- Stop blaming circumstances and other people for your inability to do something; admit that you are fearful.
- Accept change as a challenge: Stop resisting. Accept change and move forward step by step…something wonderful may wind up on this new path.
- Find your own personal mantra. Hugh always repeated, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
- Ban negative self-talk. If you hear yourself saying, “I can’t,” instead ask yourself, “Why can’t I?”
- Sing a motivating song with powerful lyrics to yourself.
- Write it down: Journaling to find meaning has been shown to reduce stress.
- Start small: Identify the times in your life where you feel fear and find ways to challenge yourself — start small, inch forward, and work your way through.
- Get help if you need it: If you have a deep fear and anxiety, see a counselor to help you through.