Sometimes, Fear Isn’t a Choice

When news about Coronavirus popped up on my radar a few weeks ago, I honestly didn’t give it a second thought.

It seems like there is some new virus threatening to end humanity as we know it every year, and this just seemed like the latest craze. Expecting this year’s trending bug to fade into the depths of social awareness, I sighed to myself and reasoned that, at the worst, maybe there would be a few less bottles of Purell on the shelves.

But this time, it didn’t go away.

I live in Manhattan and Coronavirus has impacted nearly every aspect of my daily life. I’m not allowed to do hands-on assists in the classes I teach for the time being. There are bulletins posted in my building’s elevator detailing all of the extra measures my Super is taking to clean around the clock. The taxis I ride in carry the stench of bleach. Local schools are closing. There are people walking around with masks or scarves over their faces. And those bottles of Purell? They’re on back order for at least a month.

As someone living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), these changes are more than an inconvenience – they’re very real triggers for a very real mental illness. 

Recently, I’ve noticed an increase in our conversations surrounding this idea of fear; should we or shouldn’t we be reading the news right now, how much of this information is correct, do we surrender to the culture of fear that is so present in our lives right now?

In yoga and Eastern traditions, we’re taught that fear is a choice. I teach in my own classes that at any given moment, we are confronted with the choice to react or release. And this is the same rhetoric I’ve seen on my own social media feeds, emails, and conversations recently.

But what happens when fear isn’t a conscious choice?

I’ve been in intensive therapy for over a year, take daily medication to control my intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and still – fear is something I face every morning when I wake up.

Meditation, creative expression, exercise, and eating well help…but they’re not enough. Not right now, at least.

My OCD has been deeply triggered by Coronavirus, and it’s not a spiritual choice. My hands have been rubbed raw from washing them hundreds of times each day. I’ve had 4 panic attacks in the last week alone. Last night, I got stuck in my bathroom for 15 minutes waiting for my husband to eventually come and open the door because I could not touch the dirty door knob.

I share this not to elicit sympathy, but because I know – deep in my heart – that I’m not alone in feeling this way. 

Mental health is taboo to begin with, and it’s even more taboo within the wellness industry. It’s something I’ve written about before, and it seems more relevant now than ever before.

Should we completely surrender to fear-mongering? Absolutely not.

But we also have a duty not to create a culture of shame around fear either. 

I know that the posts my colleagues share are well-intentioned. I know that reframing fear is an important part of what we do as healers. That’s why I’m writing this – because I genuinely believe that all of the “Don’t Choose Fear” rhetoric is simply ignorant to its impact on someone living with a chemical, biological disorder.

So here’s what I propose instead: compassion. 

During such a stressful time, we need to be compassionate towards ourselves and one another. Sometimes, that compassion looks like thought-challenging and remembering all the ways we are safe. Sometimes, that compassion looks like a mental health day – or days – to regroup. and sometimes…that compassion means accepting that you’re scared.

For me, the idea of denying my OCD-driven fears was even heavier than the fears themselves. I’ve felt so much shame this past week because I can’t Namaste my pain away the way my peers suggest. I’ve felt enormous shame because I can’t stop washing my hands 24/7.

…I’ve felt shame because I am truly, deeply scared and my brain just doesn’t know how to cope with those fears.

So let me be the first to say that, if you’re scared right now, it’s okay. It’s okay to be concerned for your families and health right now. It’s okay to slather on the hand sanitizer because it makes you feel safe. It’s also okay to minimize your consumption of media right now and actively challenge your understanding of fear.

It’s. All. Okay. 

However you’re managing to get through this crazy time, I accept you. I accept you because that is the same acceptance I wish for myself. I accept your strength and your fears. I accept your concerns and your confidence. I accept your essential oils and your gallons of bleach.

I accept you because the alternative is far worse than any virus.


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