Every month, the War On Cancer app offers all members of the War On Cancer community free live sessions with licensed psychologist, Hana Jamali. Last time, we discussed fear of the unknown – why we fear it, the silver lining that fear instills in us, and whether we can learn to love it. Plus, in tried and true War On Cancer fashion, concrete tips on how to cope with it. You can watch the whole conversation here.
Why do we fear the unknown?
According to our poll during the session with Hana, more than 50% of respondents have felt a maximum amount of fear of the unknown during cancer (ranking 5 on a scale of 1-5 for how much fear of the unknown was experienced). But why do we fear the unknown exactly and what can we do to get better at dealing with it in a way that improves our mental health?
Hana mentions that, in her experience, we quickly become aware that there’s a beginning and end in life. Knowing that you’re living right now and some day you’re going to die is one thing. Because the reality of dying feels abstract if you’ve never had to face it, you still give yourself the opportunity to think about how your life will be and dream. Then, when you get a cancer diagnosis, everything becomes really present. You start thinking about if you can do all of those things that you’ve dreamt in life. Maybe you’ll ask yourself even bigger questions, like if your partner will stay with you, what will happen to your kids, how to talk to them about life and death – all things that you might not reflect on as much when you’re healthy or not under “threat.”
However, when you’ve been through something like a cancer diagnosis, time becomes more present, and having faced a tangible threat to your life, relapse becomes a tangible fear. This fear heightens our awareness, and people often analyze their body for signs of cancer relapse. These heightened senses create some kind of worry or anxiety within you that grows. That experience is very common.
We also know that people who have a lot of existential thoughts can experience a lot of meaning in life, but they can also be filled with fear because they don’t know what the right answer is. If you can use these reflections and experiences and feelings in a way that brings you to the present moment and appreciating it, it can be very helpful in dealing with fearing the unknown.
It’s not only that we become aware that we’re going to die that makes us fearful towards the unknown. Rather, it’s also related to the fact that human beings desire to be in control of their own lives. But, life itself will always be, to some extent, beyond our control. The unexpected happens.
Life is so unpredictable and control is a way for people to categorize things and make life easier. Look at kids and how they organize their everyday life: a lot of children want things to be in order and want to know what happens next because otherwise it becomes overwhelming. As adults, we learn to understand complexity in a different way and can handle more of it. But, too much complexity becomes too hard even for adults – control is our mechanism to deal with it.
When we don’t have a cancer diagnosis, we feel we have more control than we do. And that’s the main difference. When you think you have more control, you don’t think about the existential questions as much and they might not hinder you as much. At the same time, when you get a diagnosis, you might feel that you want to live life to the fullest. That’s why a lot of people who go through cancer end up feeling a lot more present and enjoy things in a more meaningful way, even though they have more anxiety than they did before. Feelings are quite odd in that way – joy can a lot of times trigger sadness, and sadness can trigger joy. They’re quite interlinked.
If you look back at the caveman days, people who were more fearful were more prone to survive. The happy-go-lucky folks were less likely to survive because they didn’t anticipate threats or danger. Fear is an emotion that helps us survive. If we’re working on becoming less fearful, we’re actually working against the wirings of our brain because we’re programmed to want to be in control, intercepting negative or threatening situations and being proactive. There are many things in life you can’t control, and our brains deal with the uncontrollable or unknown by getting anxious, as a way of trying to keep us safe.
The silver lining of fearing the unknown
When experiencing something that threatens our lives, Fabian, Co-founder at War On Cancer and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia survivor, explains that he has spent more time reflecting on death, but it has led him to appreciating life a lot more. At the same time, he fears death.
Hana confirms that this is completely normal. This fear of the unknown, of death particularly, has a flip-side. The temporariness of life makes it and the experiences within it more meaningful – in fact, Hana explains that many she’s worked with feel that life is more meaningful after a cancer diagnosis than before. Reflecting on the fragility of life can bring you to appreciate the present moment more, understand what it is you value, and where you want to spend your time.
For example, you can be in this moment and be really happy, enjoying a meal with your closest friends and family and all of a sudden, you think about death, or that you don’t know what life will be in a week or two when you start treatment. That can make you really sad in the same moment that you’re enjoying being there with your loved ones. This is totally normal. Feelings and thoughts are truly linked to each other – when you appreciate something or something is meaningful to you, you fear losing it. That’s how we work.
In acknowledging that many things are out of our control or unknown, you also are given the choice and empowered to enjoy the moment, instead of projecting a future that may change. It’s about striking a balance between dreaming and making things come into fruition, and letting life take you on a journey.
Life with cancer also creates an increased intensity of feelings. When you feel joy, you really feel joy. On the other hand, anxiety may be paralyzing. When we’re faced with the unknown, the spectrum of our feelings broaden and we tap into a wider range of emotions in different situations, which is a new and sometimes scary experience. We get to know the opposite ends of the spectrum, whereas before we floated somewhere in the middle. If we learn how to manage these fluctuations, we find a way to live life not in neutral, but truly present and appreciative of it.
Can we learn to love the unknown?
Yes. You can learn to do that by exposing yourself to the unknown. The way of doing all of those things is not to get your fear to go away, but to live with the fear – there’s a big difference between those two.
If you want to learn to love, or at least appreciate, the unknown, is by getting to know those fears and feelings, and not trying to control them. Let them be there with you while you’re on your journey. Be scared and still, do things that matter to you.
See it as a challenge to get to know life through this fear and be curious about what’s going on there.
Tips on how to cope with fear of the unknown
- It’s important to get the basics – get your sleep and eat well because sometimes, even feelings of hunger or tiredness or stress can trigger anxiety because our brain can get those feelings mixed up. See your routines as a way of helping yourself to handle when you do get fearful.
- Try and steer your reflections about life and death to bring you to appreciate the here and now so that you experience the silver lining of fear. A way to do this is to become aware of everything you’re experiencing and have in the present moment.
- When you are feeling a fear of the unknown, you usually get stressed or feel anxious, which can lead to depression if it goes too far. In that situation, a lot of people isolate themselves. Instead of going into yourself, go out of yourself. Write those fears down. What are those fears? Be present in what is going on in your body while you’re writing those fears down. Usually, when we’re frightened or have anxiety, we do a lot of things to avoid those feelings. By visualizing them and writing them down, you’re exposing yourself to them. Write them down and see what happens to you.
- Need help in doing that? Check out this Letting Go practice with Amy, who guides you through a practice to better handle negative emotions.
- We are social beings and need each other’s experiences so being a part of a community is a great way of handling fear of the unknown – to be able to share your thoughts and get perspectives from other people who’ve been in that situation is priceless.
- Ask yourself these questions: What am I not doing because I’m scared? Because I have this fear in my body? What are the things in life I’ve stopped doing that I know are important to me or things that I would like to do but I’m not because of fear? The point of doing these things is not to confront them or get the fear to go away. The point is to do the things you want to do despite having the fear inside of you. When you do things like that, you become more confident and a lot of people end up feeling proud of themselves. Confidence is an anecdote to fear and anxiety, because when you feel proud of something you’ve achieved, you’re able to manage the cost of being frightened.
For those of you who are fearful, become a member of the War On Cancer app. There are many who have gone through what you’re going through and can relate and ask those questions in there to get tips and advice on how others have dealt with fear of the unknown.