How do we manage fear and build resilience in times of transition? Many of us—friends, colleagues and clients–have been “trumpatized” by the election and the changes that we fear will take place in the coming months. Thankfully, there are already leaders and organizations gearing up to contest the alarming assaults on the progress of the last fifty years regarding women’s rights, race relations, the LGBTQ community and the treatment of minorities. On a societal level we can have some assurance that large groups of concerned citizens are taking steps to stop bigotry and xenophobia in its tracks.
But the effects of this seismic shift also have the potential to impact us personally, especially if we are a member of a minority group or female. (Statistics show that 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence ) Racial epithets and random attacks on women and minorities as well as ever-increasing international tensions make the outside world a scary place. Adults are frightened and we can be sure that, if adults are frightened, children will be as well.
Fear is a complicated and, yes, a frightening emotion. If, however, we take the time to tease apart its many gradations, we can sometimes cut it down to size. It has striations, much like an awe-inspiring sunset: the fiery colors of the sun are on the top; then layers of purple in varying shades; then the dark grey hues that melt into the horizon. In a moment of apparent danger fear attacks with blazing heat and light—setting the heart racing and the adrenalin pumping. It is a physical reaction. The second layer, like the subtle violet hues of a sunset, is a deeper emotion that is colored by previous experiences and memories that we may or may not be able to identify. The deepest level—and there may be many more than three—is dark, blending into distant and unknown times and places.
Fear can be over-whelming in its intensity and if we are in peril, we must, of course, try to escape. But if we can stay with the emotion and talk it through with a supportive other, we can frequently trace its roots to another time and place. Often with my clients we begin with a present-day fear and soon make our way to a memory of something deeper—an earlier life experience that can still compel us with its terrifying power even from a distant past. A client may, for example, be talking about the recent horrific attack on the OSU campus and the uncertain times in which we live. Then her associations can quickly move to the terrifying rape that she suffered as a teenager—over-powered by a large and strong male acquaintance. A child whose father has moved out following a bitter break-up and divorce may express concerns about walking to a neighborhood school as a way of giving voice to deeper fears about losing her father forever. The fears are still present and may be accompanied by intense feelings but they are about events that happened long ago.
Children of all ages will have fears, nightmares, and unreasonable ideas about anything from monsters in their closets to worries about getting into the best colleges. Like all human beings, they have an inner life, full of irrational and illogical ideas, fantasies, dreams and nightmares. No matter how calm and reassuring parents try to be, we can’t extract those terrors from children’s heads. But what we can do is listen; try to parse them out and separate the present from the past. We can also go with a child to make sure that no monsters are in the closet. We can assure a high school student that we will approve his or her choice of colleges. We can take their fears seriously and refrain from that old standby “there is nothing to be afraid of.” (My concerned mother used to say that to me when I would express my compelling fears of the dark. I knew very well that she was afraid of thunder storms, mice, riding in cars, and sky lab falling on her head so her comments never had much credibility.)
Fear is here to stay. It is part of the human condition. It will always accompany life’s disruptions and transitions when uncertainty lies ahead. But still it is only an emotion—a powerful one to be sure. But when we encounter it in ourselves or our children we can first attempt to understand its many layers; stay firmly grounded in the present; lend support to one another; bring our many resources to bear and stay the course. It’s as FDR once said in equally perilous times: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.