Fear of the Unknown

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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Self-Doubt & Second-Guessing

Self-Doubt & Second-Guessing

It is because you care deeply about the person your caring for, that doubts and second-guessing can find a way to creep into your thoughts. You want to do everything correctly while showing compassion and competence.  However, mistakes occur, you lose patience, you become tired and may forget to do something. You may have fretted over a particular decision, and now nagging thoughts about whether it was the right decision or not are haunting you and keeping you awake at night. Self-doubt begins to erode your confidence and soon you start second-guessing everything.  Before you know it, you’re feeling incompetent, frustrated, worried, and mentally exhausted. 

It’s important that you don’t allow these negative emotions to gain a foothold in your mind. Accept them as normal human responses to actions or decisions you care deeply about. Your love and concern for your family member may make you overly sensitive to any perceived short-coming. This is a good time to measure the expectations you (and others) have placed on yourself, and adjust them to a more realistic level.

Focus on the positive influence you’re having on this person’s life. What would their life be like without you? Realize it’s impossible for anyone to be perfect, to always make the right decisions, or to never buckle under pressure. You’re doing the best you can, and no one, including you, can ask for more than that.

Minimize self-doubt and second-guessing in the future by following these tips for making decisions:

List your options on paper, then narrow down the choices by drawing a line through those that don’t fit with your core values as discussed under Finding Perspective.

Gather helpful information by doing a little research and talking to others who have experience with the issue. 

Ask yourself if the decision is one that really won’t make much difference which way you go? If so, make the choice that feels right, and then let go of it.

Realize that most decisions can be changed as circumstances evolve. At that point, it’s fine to reevaluate to determine if the original decision is still appropriate.

Let your intuition help you in the decision-making process. Intuition is a form of unconscious reasoning that uses all the knowledge and experiences from your life. Your “unconscious” thought process often uses hidden reasoning that your “consciousness” may not be aware of or have access to.

Use someone you trust as a sounding board. They may be able to add a different perspective and/or help you talk through it.

Once a decision is made, acknowledge and accept it as the best one at that given time, put it aside, and move on.

Guilt

You must forgive yourself to be free from the weight of guilt.

MANAGING FEELINGS OF GUILT

We need to recognize that guilt serves a very important and productive purpose in our lives by helping us follow our moral compass.  It prompts us to stop and analyze our thoughts, words, and actions.  We can then adjust our “course” accordingly to match our values and beliefs.  This is valuable to our well-being and society in general.

However, guilt becomes troublesome when we are unable to let go of it, even after corrective actions have been taken.  Guilt is a difficult emotion to shake, leaving us with an uncomfortable negative feeling. It is persistent and nagging, robbing us of peace and often influencing our decisions. It causes stress, exhibited by insomnia, headaches, anxiety, GI distress, and much more.  We’ve all been influenced by feelings of guilt. Knowing this, some unscrupulous people become master manipulators using guilt to get their way.

Unfortunately, caregivers are especially vulnerable to this emotion and feel some level of guilt almost daily.  We want to be the very best that we can be, and when we make mistakes or fall short of our high expectations, human nature causes us to feel disappointment, anger, resentment, impatience, etc.  It’s easy to let feelings of guilt overtake our better judgment.

How can you know if guilt is affecting your life?  Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? 

  • I’m not spending enough time with him/her.
  • I’m neglecting my own family and friends.
  • I resent that it takes so much of my time.
  • I’m missing too much work.
  • I shouldn’t have gotten angry.
  • Why do I have to carry the load?
  • Why can’t I make him/her feel better?
  • I shouldn’t have wasted time taking a nap.
  • If I were a better person…
  • I should have done this, or said that…
  • Why can’t I be more patient?  stronger?  cheerful? …

Add your own thoughts to this list.  Place a + beside all the thoughts that are helpful to you.  Draw a line through those that are counterproductive and leave you feeling bad about yourself.  What conclusion can you draw from this?  

I recommend you read the post Finding Perspective to understand how your thoughts and perspective become your reality.

WAYS TO OVERCOME GUILT

We cannot always control our circumstances, but we can manage our thoughts and perspective to alleviate feelings of guilt.  Here are some ideas:

Analyze your personal standard of care.  Are your expectations beyond reasonable?  If so, you may need to adjust your standards from idealistic to realistic.

Determine if you are providing care out of love, or obligation. Obligation can lead to feelings of resentment, followed by guilt.

Recognize and accept that feelings of guilt are inevitable, but we don’t need to dwell on them.

Think quality of care, quality of time, etc., not quantity.

Set priorities and communicate them to all concerned.

Set limits for yourself and be consistent; don’t give in to pressure from others.

Realize there are different ways to provide care, all just as valuable and meaningful as hands-on caregiving, i.e. providing transportation, preparing a meal, doing laundry, etc.

Forgive yourself and others; apologize if appropriate.

Understand that you can’t do it all.  Identify areas of care that require help from friends, family, or professional services.

Accept your imperfections; embrace yourself just as you are.

Decide if guilt deserves your time and energy at this critical time in your life.

Let go of guilt and focus on all the good you are doing.  Cherish this special time with your loved one.

Take care of yourself by getting enough rest, eating nutritious meals, and making time for yourself to do something you enjoy.

Pray, count your blessings, and give thanks.

SUMMARY

Guilt allows us to stay on course with our moral compass.  It nudges our conscience when we’ve stepped over the line.  We can then take steps to correct it or prevent it from happening in the future.  After that we need to let go of it and move ahead, however, we often allow feelings of guilt to become all-consuming.  If we’re unable to forgive our shortcomings, the trials of caregiving become more difficult to bear.  Ultimately this increases our level of stress.


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Negative Thinking: Effect on the Brain

Brain Synapses

IS IT POSSIBLE FOR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS TO AFFECT BRAIN FUNCTION?

I read about an experiment that was performed to determine if negativity had any impact on brain function.  Interestingly, it was noted that even something so simple as when a negative word (no, not, can’t, won’t, etc) was used, the electric signals in the brain were disrupted for a fleeting moment.

On a small scale, this wouldn’t be a concern, but when negative thoughts are prevalent, the frequent disruptions of electric signals can alter the chemicals in our brain.  In today’s world, we seem to be bombarded with bad news and crises, which will  have a much greater effect.  Negative thoughts tend to foster more negativity resulting in a downward spiral of our mood.  Physical symptoms start to appear, such as headaches, insomnia, digestive problems, irritability, etc.  An example of one unfortunate effect of this is depression, a serious and debilitating condition.

Cursing, worrying, and anxiety are other symptoms of negative thinking.  We know media coverage of ‘bad news’ can have a detrimental effect, but what can we do about it?  Each time we hear it, our brain reacts, so one thing we can do is limit the amount of time we spend listening to repeated reports of disturbing events.

CONSEQUENCES OF NEGATIVITY

Consider the following consequences that might result from a negative attitude, and make note of those that apply to you:

Lower self-esteem

Eating disorders

Less energy, less productive

Missing out on all the positive and joyful experiences in life

Isolation

Sleep disorders

Lower immunity

Anger and irritability

Lower tolerance levels

Memory problems

Difficulty concentrating, inability to think clearly

Emotional outbursts

Now take a moment to think about how you feel when you interact with a negative person.  Think about how your negative thoughts influence your words and actions.  How does that affect those around you?  This can easily become a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity, causing despair and a feeling of hopelessness.

WAYS TO STOP NEGATIVE THINKING IN ITS TRACKS

 Put a positive spin on it.  For example:

Instead of thinking “I’m not trained to handle this,”  think  “I’m really going to learn a lot from this experience.”

Rather than “I’ll never get everything done,”  think  “I’ll make a list, prioritize, and recruit help.”


When you’re beating yourself up over making a mistake, ask yourself what your best friend would say to you.  Or better yet, what would you say to your best friend?

Would you call him/her  “Stupid”  “Useless”  “Lazy”  “Insensitive”  etc… ?   No.  Chances are you would be reassuring, forgiving, and encouraging.  Remember – You are your own best friend, so be kind to yourself!


Avoid negative people.  They’ll zap your energy and may affect your own outlook on life.  The saying “misery loves company” is often true.

Don’t get sucked in.  If the negativity is coming from the person you’re caring for, walk away for several minutes.  If possible, go outside for a breather and refocus on all your positives.


Relax your personal expectations; don’t be so hard on yourself.

We’re human, each with our own imperfections.  If God, who is perfect, accepts us as we are, how can we not do the same?

 


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