I had a dream last night about coronavirus. A group of friends were leaving a restaurant (remember those?) and I looked back at the table where we had just been sitting and said “oh my God, we forgot to social distance.” The restaurant table was not spacious and, in the dream, I mentally calculated how far away I was from the person across from me, the person next to me. Well within 6 feet. Way too close. It was an intimate space and I began to panic that I had just contracted COVID-19. I woke up bemoaning my forgetfulness.
Before the dream, I wasn’t aware of just how deeply imbedded this virus was in my psyche. Yes, I am quarantined, uneasy about shopping for food, nervous when someone passes me too closely when I’m out, angry about the response of some public officials, and experiencing grief. As Elizabeth Gilbert recently said, if you have no anxiety at all right now, “you’re either a complete psychopath or completely enlightened.” Even so, I was not attuned to the extent of the emotional impact.
The dream was a wake-up call that I was suppressing my emotions. I have a tendency to do this. As a former litigator, it was a skill I developed to get through trials. But, when strengths are overused, they can become weaknesses, crutches we lean on when more suitable strategies exist.
For years, I resisted meditation because sitting in silence made me uneasy. Unwanted thoughts bubble up organically. As a mindfulness expert and friend told me, regular meditation creates awareness of your “top ten”. The recurring worries, automatic negative thoughts, doubts, and fears particular to you, some of which have been with you as long as you can remember.
Pushing away meditation was my way of avoiding my own top ten. When I started meditating and the thoughts came, I thought of my friend and how it could be helpful to be more conscious of my worries.
I know nothing about dream interpretation, but instinctively, felt it revealed my fear of making a mistake. Every day, we take precautions against COVID-19 that requires a level of mindfulness I am simply not used to. From touching my face (who knew it was so irresistible?) to changing my shoes before entering the house, I have become conscious of steps necessary to do it safely.
The other day, I was coming in from a walk and began to take off my outside shoes before realizing that my inside shoes were….inside. With one shoe off and the other still on, I hopped on one bare foot to retrieve the shoes, while visualizing how preposterous I must look and hoping I didn’t fall and create a new problem.
Ignoring emotions has negative side effects including physical pain, anxiety and depression. According to a study by the National Institute of Health, there are social costs as well. “A number of important social processes rely on others knowing about an individual’s internal emotional states: for example, displays of distress elicit sympathy from others and shared positive and negative experiences can facilitate social bonding.”
Here are three strategies for dealing with fear that I find useful and often introduce to clients:
- Ask yourself “what is the worst that can happen and how likely is it?” When there is no pandemic, and you drill down, replacing irrational fears with the range of real possibilities, it is usually not the horror show your fears were projecting. Even now, by taking necessary precautions, we can reduce our risk of harm.
- Regarding the outcomes we fear most – losing someone we love and/or our financial stability, it is helpful to ask yourself how you could deal with that. What strengths, attributes and resources would become important for you to exercise? Remind yourself that we are resilient and can overcome and adapt to any new reality.
- Talk it over with a trusted friend, family member, advisor, therapist, or coach. Giving voice to fears helps to soothe them.
As for me, the dream awakened a commitment to resist shoving away fear and allow expression of how I feel with myself and the people who care about me. It helps to feel united, understood and supported while recognizing that you are not alone. We are in this together.