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Facing My Fears With Journaling

Fountain pen on a paper notebook
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” — 2 Timothy 1:7

We live in a fear-filled, fear-based, fear-mongering world.

A lot of people are filled with fear right now, and perhaps rightfully so, given all that’s gone on in the past few years.

Some people live their lives based on fear, often of someone or something out there”: the government; a conspiracy theory; a disease; people of a different religion, nationality, or skin color; etc. Many people live in genuine fear on a consistent basis because of their living conditions — inadequate or no housing; food insecurity; job instability; mental illness; chronic health conditions; etc.

Then there are those who are the fear-mongers, the ones who spread fear. For whatever reason, they like to keep other people living in fear, probably because they somehow benefit from the fear that those other people have. And they’re good at spreading that fear-inducing information.

We all have our own fears based on our unique personalities and individual situations, and all of those can change over time. I used to live life pretty flippantly when I was younger, but then I got into relationships and responsibility, and I realized there are things to be afraid of. There are people and things I can lose that are irreplaceable.

When you love someone, you don’t ever want to lose them. But the longer we live, the more likely that is to happen. And we gain experience and build relationships and open up to others — I got married, started a family, became good friends with people over several years. Situations changed, and I found myself trying to adapt to these new situations that I may not always like or choose.

Imagine my surprise when, in my late 30’s, I realized I had gone from being a flippant, carefree young man to a guy approaching middle age who was starting to experience panic attacks. Some of my life situations were changing, and I didn’t like the direction they were going.

When I first met Melissa when we were both teenagers, I knew that she had a medical condition. As we both aged, that medical condition gradually got worse, in spite of all the doctors that she saw, in spite of all the tests that were run, in spite of all the treatments and medications that she tried, until just a few years after our son was born, her chronic condition had reached the point where she had to take a medical retirement from her full-time job as a teacher, and she was classified as permanently disabled. Now this person that I loved was suddenly vulnerable, or at least more vulnerable than I had previously been willing to admit, and it suddenly made me more vulnerable. This isn’t blaming her; it’s a pretty natural progression when we love someone deeply.

When she passed away in November 2020, I soon felt like my fears and anxiety had disappeared. My worst nightmare had happened — she was gone — but I had lived through it. Who or what could hurt me now?

But as time passed, I realized there were still causes for fear in my life. I am now a single dad to a 13-year-old son. Would I be a good enough parent without my wife/his mom? How would he fare emotionally through all of this? Would my single income be enough for us? What if I lost my job? What if something happened to me; what would happen to him?

Maybe I have a more experienced view on fear now, based on what I’ve been through, but I’d be foolish to think my fears have completely vanished.

At the same time, I don’t want to be ruled by my fears. I don’t want to be a victim of anxiety and panic. I prefer to be knowledgeable and prepared.

Journaling has become a much more important part of my life, not just for the record of what I did or thought that day, but also for the insights I have begun to see about myself. I have journaled about some of my fears, both real and imagined, and even found some things that have helped.

Then I recalled reading (way back in February 2014 — it helps to keep good notes) about a Decision Journal.

We all make decisions. And yet few of us think about what we can learn from our past decisions to make smarter decisions in the future. A decision journal helps you learn from past decisions, think through current decisions, and avoid problems before they happen.”

The idea occurred to me that if I could keep a Decision Journal, I could also keep a Fear Journal. To paraphrase: We all have fear. And yet few of us think about what we can learn about our fear so we can be braver and make smarter decisions in the future. A fear journal helps us learn from and about our fears, think through the truth about our fears, and be prepared for whatever happens.”

So I started journaling my fears. I do this in Obsidian, my personal journaling/note-keeping/second-brain tool of choice, but you could do the same in many other apps, or even in a paper notebook with your preferred writing utensil.

I have a folder named FEAR and inside that folder, I have a file for each situation that I want to tackle. In a paper notebook, you could simply dedicate a page or two to each situation that you want to tackle.

The Journaling Process

Here’s what I journal:

First Information

What am I afraid of? And what is the first information I received on this topic? There is a common bias, called the anchoring bias, where we are overly influenced by or prefer the first information we hear on a topic. We naturally tend to accept and believe that information, and then judge everything else we hear against that first information.

So I start by documenting the first information I received. It may be a link to an article, it may be a quote from someone, it may be a meme on social media, or it may be a thought that occurred to me out of the blue. Wherever it came from, I try to get as much of that information down as I can.

Even this first step can be a little bit freeing — there is much interesting information to read on the topic of Naming Your Fear.”

First Responses

After I document the first information, then I focus on my first responses. In other words, after hearing or receiving this fearful information:

I document those crazy thoughts that I’m having, or at least the thoughts that are driving me crazy. Again, it helps to get them out of my brain and onto something visible (a file on my computer, or a page in a notebook). I look at this as a continuation of Naming Your Fear” — I benefit from getting those thoughts out of my head where they are written down and I can see them. Sometimes they are just individual words; sometimes they are coherent sentences. Whatever works in the moment, I get those thoughts and feelings out.

I am a human being; I will have physical and emotional reactions to various situations. I can’t control my initial reaction, but I can control what I choose to do after that. So now it’s time to start equipping myself to make a decision.

A note on document structure”: I start by recording the First Information section, but then in the file, I push” that down the screen and type the First Responses section above it. This is one reason I prefer digital over paper, because it’s easy to move information around. I know that my First Information and First Responses will generally be the most inaccurate and/or emotional, so I want to push those down the page where I still have them for reference, but then replace them visually with (hopefully) more accurate and helpful information.

Reliable Resources

OK, I’ve recorded my First Information and First Responses. Now I create a third section at the top of the document called Reliable Resources, pushing the other two sections down the page. It’s time to do some research.

Now I’m looking to verify: Is the information that I received accurate and complete? Did I truly understand what was said? Did I miss part of the information? Is there more to the story? Was information taken out of context or data skewed?

In this section, it can be helpful to record:

You know what? Sometimes this Reliable Resources section confirms my First Information and First Responses. Maybe there truly is something to be concerned about, afraid of, or whatever level of emotion and concern continues to apply.

In this case, my Reliable Resources serves a secondary purpose to help plan: What can I do to mitigate any risk? How can I be prepared if something happens? What should I be thinking about and planning for?

This can then generate some action items, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example:

The whole point of this section is to help me produce a decision: Now that I know, what am I going to do about it?

Final Facts

After I’ve done the research, I add a fourth section at the top of the page with my summary of the situation. I’ll write this as if I’m speaking to my future self, recognizing that I’m likely to come back to this file or document and reference it, perhaps even in a state of panic. I start by trying to find a single word and/or emoji that lets me immediately understand what I’ve learned and decided.

If there is a genuine cause for concern or fear, I’m honest with myself, but I also classify it appropriately while I’m in a calm state of mind.

If there’s no need to fear, or it’s a false alarm,” I’ll still write a summary for myself in case it comes up in conversation with someone else who would listen to and benefit from what I’ve learned.

Benefits of Journaling

Sometimes the findings of this process are surprising. For example, for several years in my 30’s, I thought I had developed anxiety over flying in an airplane. There were a couple of trips that I had learned to make it through at the time, but if I could have found any way out of making those trips, or any other method of travel than flying, I would have taken it. But after doing some journaling about what I experienced, I had the following realizations:

Once I came to those realizations, I could make some changes that made air travel easier. I’ve been on a couple of flights since then, and they’ve been much better without the absolute dread.

Another benefit is simply that I can continue to come back to a document on a specific topic and make updates, be reminded of previous research and decisions, or even record new victories” over a specific fear. Like myself, it’s all a work in progress.

There’s a saying that knowledge is power,” attributed to Sir Francis Bacon (or as G.I. Joe would say, Knowing is half the battle”). I’ve come to better understand that now as I’ve aged — being prepared with information and facts gives me power over my fears. Choose knowledge over fear. That’s what the journaling process gives me — knowledge to battle my fears.

Finally, I can choose faith over fear. In Psalm 23:4, King David wrote, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me.” I have walked through that valley this past year, and I can verify that God has been with me. God is greater than my fears.

I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” — Psalm 34:4

For I, the LORD your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, Fear not, for I will help you.’” — Isaiah 41:13

Posted on 2021-09-29   #fear     #journaling  

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