I have lived with a dragon inside me for most of my adult life. His name is fear. I trust him to protect me from anything that threatens me, but for the most part, he has been the reason behind some of my worst self inflicted wounds.
On good days, he will nudge me away from trouble by keeping me alert. He was of great use when I was learning how to drive on Kenyan roads. He sees the potholes before me, he already knows when a matatu is about to cut me off and he obsessively keeps an eye on my side mirrors.
On bad days, he balloons into my darkest thoughts and feelings. He’ll convince me that the space I’m taking up in this world should have gone to someone who is more worthy of it. Someone who is as successful as my Instagram friends. He’ll whisper my exact bank balance throughout the day so I don’t forget how long I have before my world (and the bubble around it) comes crushing down. He will remind me that I’m growing older and poorer, so what’s the point of it all?
This dragon’s eerie ability to shape-shift between a protector and an attacker came to a head the day the first COVID-19 case was announced in Kenya. Up until then, I had begun to feel like I understood how to tame him; sometimes even putting him to sleep. Now he was awake again, his old chains torn off and my life turned upside down. COVID-19 has been like an asteroid torching it’s way through all the walls I worked so hard to build.
When I’m not being terrified by what COVID-19 may have done to my future, I am angry at the thought of what could have been. I already miss waking up full of foolish hope for the days ahead. The business proposals I had been working on are now gathering dust in a mental file labelled ‘Things that are no longer essential’. Sometimes I’m just sad that the most essential thing I have left to do is to wash my hands regularly. It isn’t, but once I decide to believe this you can’t convince me otherwise. I’ll do anything to go back to a day when I was the only one responsible for my health and I didn’t have to depend on other people being socially responsible to feel safe.
This virus has made the dragon bigger, faster and stronger. He now controls almost every aspect of my life and I have to fight back. I know the tools I need to tame him but when it comes to mental health, knowing is not nearly enough. You have to relentlessly put into practice everything you learn. So I’m writing to remind myself of the things I’ve learned over the years about fear and anxiety, but more importantly this is an action plan for how I’ll put these lessons into practice during this pandemic.
The first and most crucial lesson I learnt about fear and anxiety came from a chewing gum.
Do you know why chewing gum can help you relax? Well, our bodies are so good at conserving energy in times of fear. They need to conserve as much energy as possible in the event that they have to fight or flee. Conserving energy means switching off bodily functions that are not necessary when you have to run from a lion. One of these bodily functions is salivating. You really don’t need food while running for your life, which means you really don’t need saliva. That’s why when you are afraid for your life, your mouth dries up.
That’s where the chewing gum comes in.
By chewing gum, you are sending a message to the brain that you actually need that saliva. If the brain is forced to help you produce this saliva then it begins to, once again, believe that everything is okay. I mean if you have the time to chew gum then everything must be okay, right? And that’s the first lesson on fear.
Fear is a feedback loop.
This is to say that how I think influences how I behave but how I behave can just as easily influence how I think. And that’s a good thing. When taming the dragon, it is important for me to give priority to behaviours that positively influence how I think. The battle is won when something as simple as taking a long walk can help me realise that I’m not lonely; I was just bored. It is an important distinction for me to be able to make at a time when seeing my friends and family has become so devastatingly rare.
The second thing I have come to learn about fear is that it needs a name.
Fear comes in so many shapes and sizes. Without a name, fear sneaks up on me like a sniper. I’ll suddenly find myself unable to pay attention to the film I’m watching because my head is jumping back and forth between the COVID-19 Death Toll tweets I read a few moments ago. This is what panic looks like. Panic is the name I give to the kind of fear that makes me worry about things I have no control over.
Taking the time to name my fear helps me distract myself from the fear itself. By taking the time to sit quietly and describe my fear in detail, I’m not actually thinking of the death tolls themselves. I can only think about one thing at a time and if that one thing is ‘what to call my fear’, then it means for that period, I am actually not obsessing about the fear itself. I already start feeling better by giving my brain something else to think about that is just as intriguing. Fear thrives on a luck of understanding. Putting fear into words is the first signal to my brain that I’m still in control. I know what’s going on. My brain feels much safer when I understand what’s going on. Put the phone away, Ernest, it is of no help to you right now.
The third thing I have come to learn about fear is that my body is wired to do it’s best to avoid danger. This is not always a good thing.
My ancestors’ bodies had to learn how to survive in an environment that constantly threatened their existence. It became important for them to always be on the run as far as fear was concerned. I live inside the exact same body, but in a much more complex and layered environment. Most of the problems I face can’t be solved by running. If I avoid thinking about the possibility that I might get infected with the COVID-19 virus, then it means I’ll be terribly prepared if and when it actually happens. I have to stay and fight.
The time I waste running away from the reality that I’m just as vulnerable as those falling ill, is time I will wish I spent learning how to fight the disease. By taking the time to calmly learn about the disease and how to recover from it, I am sending another important signal to my brain. I’m telling it that not only is there a way to fight back, but most people who contract the virus recover from it. You’ll be amazed by how the brain reacts to hope. Even the audacity of it.
The fourth thing I have learnt about fear, is that my breath is a sword. It cuts through fear like a knife through butter.
The trick to swinging this sword, is understanding how similarly my brain treats both fear and exercise. In both cases, it is wired to demand more oxygen for different parts of my body to use as fuel. Yes, oxygen is a kind of fuel for the body. The first thing that happens when I’m afraid, even without knowing, is that I take less breaths than my brain and body demand. A shopping trip can feel like a death sentence when I see how poorly the supermarket is managing hygiene. While I’m compulsively obsessing about how many people the cashiers hands served today, I’m literally sending less and less oxygen to parts that really need it.
Taking control of how deep my breaths are is a way of signalling to my brain that there is nothing to worry about. We have plenty of oxygen in reserve regardless of what is going on in my immediate environment. This is how meditation became a pillar in my life. Even before COVID-19, the first thing I try to do every morning is to remind my brain what it feels like to take deep mindful breaths. What it feels like to be safe. This is what I drawn on when I’m seated next to someone who has just coughed in a matatu.
‘Breathe, Ernest. Remember what it felt like in the morning.’
It doesn’t matter if it takes 5, 10 or 30 minutes, the most important thing about meditation is that it is a way of teaching the brain how to calm down on command. Like any skill, you get better at it with time. You start discovering the space between the moment something has happened to you and when you react. The more I can learn to extend this moment in time, the easier it is for me to calm down when I need to most.
Fear is also a sliding scale. If I can grade where I fall on it, I will have the confidence to turn around and face it.
When it comes to this pandemic, what I struggle the most with is it’s appearance as an endless nightmare. There is no end in sight, at least not until we have a vaccine. That particular fear manifests itself through feelings of helplessness. It feels like we are all falling in a bottomless pit and no one, yet, has a way of pulling us back out. My brain then perceives this helplessness as unbearable. As something I am unable to quantify. This is a lie I fight by grading my anxiety…
‘On a scale of 1-10, how scared am I at this very moment and what number (on the scale) am I comfortable operating at so I can continue living my life?’
Usually the answer is about 3 for me. If I can breathe my way down from an 8 to a 3 then I’ll have enough peace of mind to concentrate on the things I do have control over. The reason I don’t try to go down to zero is because not only is some level of fear needed to keep me alert, it is also important that I validate them. What I’m trying to say, is that it is completely okay to be a little scared.
Grading the fear is a way of diluting it into something quantifiable. If it has an upper limit (10 on the scale) then it can be managed. If it can be managed, then I’m not helpless.
I’ve also learnt that fear is a lot like energy. It just needs somewhere to go.
In times of fear my body is a flight or fight vessel. The moment I’m afraid, a signal is sent to my brain to prepare all my energy reserves in the event that I either have to fight or flee. If I can’t take this energy somewhere, I’ll end up drowning in a pool of anxiety. Exercising is a way of giving the body something to spend this energy on. By the time I am exhausted, my brain believes that I have successfully outrun my fears and I can now start relaxing again. It’s a life hack.
I have not been doing well on the exercise front but I hope to soon go back to Yoga. It is highly recommended for dragon tamers. It’s an exercise that has taught me how to breathe mindfully, move with intention and challenge my fears. All in one workout. I need that now more than ever.
I am doing much better ever since I started reminding myself of these important habits. My hope is that we all get through this as quick as possible. The dragon might be loose, but I am more than capable of taming it if I do the most simple things well. If I do them over and over until they become muscle memory.
This is what I hope for you as well.