We’ve all had frightening experiences and can relate to the immediate, acute stress response that fear invokes. When the danger (or perceived danger) is past, we’re able to calm ourselves and move on with our lives. However, fear is not always that easy to shake.
I want you to think about a different type of fear — Fear of the Unknown. Although it’s invisible, it can take on a life and form of its own, becoming more frightening as it grows and changes shape as your imagination focuses on worst case scenarios. It can be insidious, gradually gaining a tight grip on your thoughts, persisting for weeks, months, and even years. When this happens, you become vulnerable to the mental and physical health problems associated with chronic stress. Review the effects of acute stress and chronic stress from my previous posts, and you’ll understand the importance of addressing this negative emotion head-on.
How does fear of the unknown gain such a foothold? It starts out with the following uncertainties so often faced by family caregivers:
Will I be able to handle this? What exactly is expected of me? How long will this go on? How will this affect my family, my job, my finances, and my life? Is my loved one’s quality of life in my hands? What will happen if I make a mistake or a poor decision? What does the future hold? How difficult will it become?
As caregiving challenges mount, fearful thoughts begin to consume your energy, making it more difficult to function at your best. This in turn eats away at your confidence, causing your fears to grow and multiply until you find it challenging to make even simple decisions. Realize that fear of the unknown can foster more anxiety than actually knowing what to expect. Take a look at the illustration above — how do you feel if you look only at the black shadow? How do you feel when you realize the shadow was simply made by the shape of a hand?
As you can see by this example, the best way to conquer fear of the unknown is by learning as much as possible about the root cause of it. In the case of a family caregiver, this will include the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis your loved one is facing. Talk with health care professionals, do a little research online or at the library, and speak to others who are in a similar situation. There are many online support groups if you can’t find one locally. They can be a great place to vent, ask questions, and find others who share your concerns.
If possible, prepare yourself with the knowledge and skills you’ll need before the time is upon you. Plan ahead for special accommodations and additional help when needed. Use a care plan as explained in an earlier post to develop structure and peace of mind for yourself as well as your loved one.
Evaluate your expectations and adjust them to ‘realistic’ levels rather than ‘idealistic.’ Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and most importantly, take care of yourself with private time, friends, nutritional meals, water, exercise, and health check-ups. If you do this and educate yourself with information about what to expect, you’ll be able to keep fear of the unknown in check.
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