Look up “fear” on dictionary.com, and you’ll find that the primary definition is “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain etc. whether the threat is real or imagined.”
I love this definition. Not only does it declare that the emotion arises from “impending danger, evil, pain, etc.,” but it also acknowledges that the threat may be imaginary, unreal.
Ah yes, this is what it’s like to be human, to be freaked out over things (whether real or not). In stressful situations, the brain’s ever-noble amygdala sends protective messages to fight, flight, or freeze. It’s easy to understand when, in the throes of emotion, fiction overtakes reality.
Losing Loved Ones
I learned this firsthand after my mother died in 2016 from leukemia/lymphoma. A decade prior, my then-70-year-old Danish mother and 80-year-old American father moved out of New York City to continue their retirement in Helsingor, Denmark. Hamlet’s hometown gave them a jumping-off point to travel more in Europe, but some of their greatest adventures occurred in town and at home.
They made daily pilgrimages to Kvicky, the local supermarket, and loved chatting up storekeepers about fish and cheese; they spent hours playing endless games of gin rummy around the kitchen table or snuggling up to bingewatch “crimmies” like Columbo on DVD.
Becoming a 90-year-old widower, therefore, was never part of my father’s retirement plan. I interrupted my freelancing life in Los Angeles to go to Denmark to put together a care plan for my father, who didn’t speak any Danish and was prone to falls.
Collaborating with a Danish social worker, we hired an in-home nurse to cook and shop for him and allowed the state-sponsored hjemmepleje, or “home healthcare workers,” to check in on him several times a day. Wearing a Life Alert bracelet, he’d continue to live in his apartment while I managed all of his affairs from LA.
Stories of Fantasy over Fact
In theory, it was a good and reasonable plan. But anything could happen. I was placing an enormous amount of trust into strangers’ hands, and that didn’t hit me until I came home.
Standing at LAX’s Enterprise rental car counter (my Civic had died during my time abroad), I was headachy and tired from the long journey I had just taken. Thoughts spun in my head, causing tears to rim my eyes.
What had I done??
Images flashed of Interpol staging a standoff outside of my parents’ apartment while a disgruntled hjemmepleje held my father hostage. Perhaps my father would’ve been spared, but he’d be forced to live in a Danish nursing home for the remainder of his days, unable to understand anyone around him. Naturally, I’d never find work in LA again, and the ordeal would leave me penniless and alone, living in a cardboard box in Pacoima.
I did my best to keep it together at the rental car counter and in the coming days and weeks. And you know what? Nothing of the kind happened! As life clicked back into place, I learned that we made the best possible choice in hiring Lotte (which is short for Charlotte, my name). She practically adopted my father into her family, and whenever I called, he seemed to be buoyant, joyous. I also got freelance work within days, and everything turned out to be okay.
Because of fear, my mind had told me some horrible stories that were completely untrue. Since then, I’ve cultivated a greater awareness of these mental fictions and even developed a three-step process to better discern fantasy from fact.
A Three-Step Process to Release Fear
It goes like this:
1. Before doing something fear-inducing, play out the scenario in your head of what you think is going to happen. If need be, write it down.
2. After taking a deep breath, do that difficult thing, and notice what actually happens. If need be, write it down.
3. Compare #1 to #2. If need be, laugh.
If you’re prone to worry, it’s best to start with “ankle-biters,” or minor things such as running late to refill a parking meter. Then, to test yourself, try to move up to larger worries such as asking your manager for a promotion. (And always use common sense!).
One caveat: although you’ll gain a greater awareness of the mind by doing this exercise, it does not prevent bad things from happening. Sometimes, there will be a parking ticket slapped on the windshield; other times, you may lose the promotion to the owner’s niece.
But if we understand that most of the drama is in our heads, we can begin outsmart ourselves, and genuinely understand the truth in Franklin Roosevelt’s quote that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”