“Oh hey there. Thought you were going on vacation after Nationals?”
“No, I’ve decided to hang around for a while. Keep you company. Make life more interesting for you. And the whole world, really.”
“Okay. Come visit. You can kick around for a bit. But we need a few ground rules. You can come train with me, but you don’t speak while I approach the bar. I’m cool with having you in the house, but you’re not allowed to actually make decisions for me and my reactions to your presence, I control. Also, I am not watching FB and I’ve heavily edited my media to exclude sources that don’t elevate my thinking, so if you want to get to me, you’ll need to try something different.”
“You think you get to decide how I work?”
“Yes. In fact, I *know* I do.”
Fear and I are old friends. Well, Fear and his son, Fear FitzFear, if you want a more complete family portrait. Fear is a tricky guy, but Fear of Fear is equally insidious as he stops you trying things because you’re scared of the stomach swooping sensations of Fear. They visit pretty often and since I started lifting, I have come to appreciate them more. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot less of them and even that makes you start to wonder what they’re up to.
“What scares you?”
It’s not an easy question. Stepping onto a platform in front of hundreds (okay, dozens) of people used to, but no longer does. There was a time when I had full-blown room-spinning panic attacks under the bar on the platform. The idea of approaching a weight I’ve never tried before used to, but no longer does; I’ll either lift it or I won’t and that’s not a thing to be scared of. The idea of losing used to, but no longer does; my worth as a lifter doesn’t lie in medals or podia. Failure? No longer scary, just a part of the process. Pain? Well, it doesn’t feel great, but it is an experience that tells you things. It’s more exhausting than scary, if taken to too great an extreme, which is why you listen to its lessons and adapt as needed to move past it. Being alone? That used to scare me profoundly until the period in which I faced heavy squats over and over again, alone with that bar, and I realized that I can stand up under Fear and Weighty Things, whatever form they may take. Fear loses its power when you sit with it a while, listen to the shape of it and taste the sound of it in your mind, and then use rational thought to decide how to react.
“What are you telling me?”
Fear serves a purpose. Fear exists to keep you safe. It is an instinctual reaction to a situation. Fear is your subconscious working far faster than your conscious mind, compiling a list of factors faster than you can think them, and coming up with a baseline protective response that is most likely to prevent your demise. Fear makes you retreat or attack. Fear impels you to panic and act in ways that draw people to you or push them away. Fear causes groups of people to defend themselves in unison and it often gives rise to people attacking to protect themselves. People respond to fear differently because they experience it differently. It’s a valid experience, but not measurable or coherent in form and intensity. It’s a “qualia,” with subjective or qualitative aspects of experience.
“What am I going to do in response to what you are saying?”
All human action is a response to either solve or cope with a problem or situation. People always act for a reason. You may not be able to see the reason, but it exists. And it’s very real to them. Different situations trigger different reactions in individuals. I don’t mind mice or spiders. I could not say the same for many of my friends; we would react very differently to finding them in our houses.
Your fear is not the same as your friend’s fear, even in response to the same information. Your reaction to fear is not the same as theirs either because you are shaped by different influences; your economic situation, past, social surroundings, and personal values make you distinct from others. What scares you is not what scares your friend. What terrifies them may not even have breached your radar.
Fear also makes people do things that are not logical because fear is not a logical experience. It is an experience that zooms past logic and says, “We will first buy enough toilet paper to supply Australia and then we will talk about how to behave in response to disease control.” From a lifting standpoint, fear inspires people to go off program and max out before a meet to reassure themselves that they are capable. Fear is why folks sandbag training and competition attempts. Fear being in control is why folks pull out of competitions for the oddest of reasons, reasons that actually don’t have anything to do with what they purport to be (don’t feel like making a weight cut, not having a great bench training cycle, my regular coach won’t be there, they won’t have the equipment I like, I don’t like the meet shirt). Fear is a very real controlling factor in decision making for a great many people even for the most innocuous of situations.
Fear also believes that it drives the van. It can only do this, however, with permission. And learning how to talk to Fear is a life skill that requires as much work as getting physically strong. I would go so far as to say that what makes an elite lifter different from ordinary ones is the decision to head-on address who controls the thoughts in their head and how to react to external stimuli and to lean into Fear and strengthen their minds. This is actually what elite lifters are training with every repetition that they force on their bodies; they are training themselves to lean into discomfort and to sit with Fear without allowing it to take the wheel.
This is also why their social media is highly refined and generally positive; not because they are secretive or manicured (although I’m sure some are, like anyone), but because they choose what thoughts to reinforce and they decide what to allow into their brains. What they post is a carefully chosen snapshot of how they do this and the results. They control their intake and they control their output, because they control the space in-between. This does not mean they discount Fear. It also doesn’t mean that they do stupid things despite information that would indicate a safer course of action. It means that they are strong enough to sit with Fear for a while to figure out what it *actually* means, what it’s trying to tell them, and to act thoughtfully in response to it. And as you get stronger, it takes more to scare you because you can cut out the chaff more readily and centre on the actual issues at hand.
When a situation arises like the one the world is facing, there’s a lot of fear out there. There are a lot of unknowns. There are a lot of factors to consider and there are a lot of variances in the social, economic, and mental resources that are available to each individual. Which means that there are a lot of wildly different reactions.
I am not sure I can tell anyone with authority how to cope with this current situation. I’m not a doctor or a therapist; I’m just someone who struggles like anyone else with adversity and my own ongoing personal journey which largely focuses on embracing Fear and using it as an ally during training and competition. Fear I know intimately. We dance and wrestle often. I’m no expert, but I have some experience with this beastie.
As one human to another, however, I would challenge you to and push back enough against your initial fears to act rationally. I would suggest that you write your fears surrounding whatever situation you face down on paper (not on Facebook) and to look at where they come from. And I would suggest that you determine reputable and knowledgeable sources for information and actively look to those for guidance on how to address your worries. Once you have obtained said guidance, I would suggest that you make a plan for coping and then that you firmly and actively stand by your prescribed plan for action as advocated by the knowledgeable authorities. Write it down so that when you panic you have a guide. And honestly? I would block out information sources other than the ones you know to be accurate, step away from the flood of information other than to look for periodic updates that might be relevant, and focus your attention on following your plan diligently and having confidence in the action that you have taken.
Focus on what you can control. Recognize the power that your thoughts have over your outcomes, and use them to precipitate useful actions. Be compassionate with those who are fighting their own demons; you cannot always see other folks’ ghosts. Breathe. Take care of yourselves and each other. All storms eventually run out of rain.
Fist bumps to you all. This too shall pass.