Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Overcoming the Fear Factor for the Sandwich Generation

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural speech, used the phrase we are hearing echoed today: "...let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Today, we hear this phrase related to the economic uncertainties and fears.

But this weekend, as I talked with a friend who is sandwiched between her 25 year old daughter and her elderly father, I thought about this phrase in relation to the challenges we share as members of this sandwich generation.

She expressed great fear that her daughter is making choices today that will affect the rest of her life.

She fears for her father, who just found a frightening lump.

My own daughters are living on the other side of the world; one in India and one in Israel. I could be filled with fear for them, as I watch the news and know that these two areas of the world are filled with risk and unrest.

The fear and the worry can be consuming. These feelings can create a background level of stress that makes it harder to sleep; harder to eat healthy foods; harder to maintain our relationships.

Recently researchers found that our thoughts directly affect how our brain functions. We can, from all evidence, think ourselves happier by what we choose to focus on.

When we specifically think of things we're thankful for, the happiness centers of our brain become more active.

I assume that when we worry or focus on our fears, the opposite thing occurs: the parts of our brain that cause depression, unhappiness and despondency become more active.

This weekend, Karen and I made a choice to fight this natural tendency to obsess on the worry and fear. Surprisingly, some of the steps we chose to take really work:

1) Spend time with friends. Talk about what's worrying you, but then make a choice to talk about things that make you laugh or take your mind off your worries. We toured an historic old home in our community and talked about how much daily life has changed over the years - and how thankful we are to have today's comforts.

2) Take a walk. Exercise, combined with fresh air and sunshine has proven value in lifting our spirits and improving our feelings of well-being.

3) Do your "gratitudes." Every day, think of four things you're thankful for. Say them out loud. Try to be creative, and name new things each day. Many studies have found that this one step alone will improve your sense of happiness. Certainly focusing on the things that we are grateful for takes our focus away from our fears and our worries - in itself, a very positive step.

4) Take action. Where you can, take action to relieve your worries. If something is nagging at the back of your mind, let it come forward where you can deal with it. It might as simple as making a plan to visit a parent at a specific day and time. It may mean sending an email or writing a note and putting it in the mail. Action can defeat worry and fear. Do something.

5) Find simple joys. A warm wood fire, a glass of good wine, a book that makes you feel happy inside - these are simple pleasures that can create a feeling of well-being and happiness.

6) Get a pet. My dog Bella is a big furry mess this time of year. She brings in so many leaves when she rushes in that it can look like it's fall inside the house as well as outside in the yard. But Bella unfailingly greets us with a level of joy that is hard not to respond to. She is always excited to see us; always eager to be with us; always overjoyed with even the smallest measure of attention. Pet therapy is now an tested approach to healing and improving feelings of well-being.

Feelings of fear are probably not our greatest concern today. They can, however, as FDR said, result in paralysis that can negatively affect other areas of our lives. Taking simple steps to overcome fear and worry is one positive step we can all begin right now.

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