Are you more afraid of what is, or what might be? Make a mental note of your answer. Most people would say that they are afraid of “what is,” but if they dig deeper, they will realize that it’s actually the latter. Let’s use the example of the Muslim traveling ban in the United States to understand this concept in further detail. The fact is that the Muslim Ban has been reversed but for innumerable Muslim families their “reality” is rather different. They are feeling uncertain and fearful regardless of which country they may have ties to. If they were afraid of the ban itself, then the fact that it has been lifted would allay their fears, right? So why isn’t this the case?
Most people don’t actually fear “what is” but in fact, we actually fear “what if.” Our fears are based on the future, but they are triggered by events in the (distant/ or even recent) past. Fear is not often based in the present, unless we are in the middle of something traumatic. Traumatic events such as a car accident, being stopped at the airport, or someone shouting verbal abuse at you all trigger the fight/flight mechanism. There’s no time for fear, the mind/body system senses a threat and acts almost instantly. This survival mechanism is designed for occasional use, only when actual threat exists in that moment.
Traumatic events often become reminders or anchors for fears to emerge. Something terrible happened and we become afraid that it could happen again. Maybe something happened to someone we know, and we begin worrying about the same thing happening to us. Let’s take an everyday example such as having a friend that betrayed our trust, we may find it hard to trust another again. In the context of the muslim ban, I have spoken with people who are US citizens or residents and they aren’t traveling due to the fear of what may happen. Many families have been separated and even some wedding plans changed. So even though nothing has happened yet, they are unwilling to take any risks- they are living into a fearful future, and that’s paralyzing.
Living in fear this way severely compromises our health and quality of life. We can’t make decisions, our stress hormones are circulating constantly resulting in any number of physical symptoms such as panic attacks, headaches, feelings of being agitated, sleepless and so on. All in all, this is not a pretty picture. And fear doesn’t discriminate between religion or culture- it can happen to anyone who experiences a challenge, at any point in their lives. So what do we do? Do we let our minds play the what-if game, or do we do something about it? Let’s explore some practical strategies to help us manage our fears productively.
Use your imagination to your advantage:
Our ability to feel fearful goes hand in hand with our ability to imagine. At first, something really did happen, but instead of letting it go, we imagine that it could happen again. The imagination creates a movie , and sends the message that this is real, and happening now. The next thing you know, we are stressed and fearful; we may not even know why.
Breaking this pattern takes a little conscious awareness and some action. Reflect on how you want things to really be. Start writing down your ideas, and make sure to note as many details as you can, where you want to be, who is with you, what you are doing and so on. Next, close your eyes and imagine this happening. You are the star of your own film, so you see it through your eyes. Notice all the details and how wonderful it is. End the movie on a wonderful and positive now. Practice this visualization every day, and you will find yourself being happier, more relaxed and actually living your life.
Focus on what you control
Fears and stresses become triggered when we focus on all the things that we can’t control. We become fixated, and we lose our power. However, we may not even realize we are doing this. This behaviour applies to any difficult situation we may face such as the muslim travel ban, to what your family members say, even the weather. Here’s an exercise we could all benefit from. Reflect on the situation. Write it down in one sentence, and below it, divide the page into two columns. Label one side “what’s in my control” and write “what’s not in my control” on the other side. Next, we can fill in each column with all the things that come to mind. We may notice that we control our attitude, actions, and behaviours, but everything else is out of our control. We now have the choice to put our focus on what we control and take actions on those. This is about making the best possible lemonade when all we have are lemons!
Find the opportunity in your situation:
One cornerstone of the Muslim faith is that we believe that there is a reason for every challenge we face. We may not know or see what the reason is, but it’s there. We are taught to practice relying on God actively through prayer and action; this is known as “tawakkal” or reliance on god. If you are struggling to see the silver lining right now, then think back to a time when you experienced something really challenging. You thought you would never get through it, but you did. As you look back at it now, you see how much you’ve grown and developed as a person from that experience. Hindsight is always perfect because we have a much bigger view of the situation. Going through a challenge reduces our ability to see the bigger picture; we are in survival mode. Awareness that this is happening is really useful because we can turn our thinking around by asking ourselves the right question.
So if you are going through any fears or stresses right now, take some time out to be alone. Lie down and take three really deep breaths. Hold each one for as long as you can, and release each one slowly. Once you find yourself calmer, then ask yourself this question “what’s the opportunity in this situation? Write this question down on a piece of paper and allow yourself to focus on it. Write down everything that comes to mind. If you do this a couple of times you may notice that this situation is presenting opportunities to grow and develop in ways you hadn’t thought of before. You can then focus on these opportunities in the most empowering way for you.
Experiencing fears and stress are part of life but we needn’t let these situations take control of our lives. I hope that you will find these strategies useful to overcome any challenge you face, now or in the future.