What Front Line Workers Need to Know about Fear

A front line worker is someone who we as a society need in order to function. Think, EMTs, teachers, nurses, doctors and all hospital workers, firefighters, activists, behavioral health workers, nonprofit staff, and police officers (the list goes on). To these varying degrees these “essential workers” ensure that the rest of us are safe and that our basic rights are being protected. 

To only refer to “frontline” or “essential” workers ignores the internal world of these humans who struggle with fear, anxiety, doubt, and rage-among other emotions. They are not cardboard cutouts here only to serve the rest of us. We need to address the emotional resilience of people whose work is crucial to society and whose work requires them to be out in the field interacting with all kinds of people and dynamics. 

As someone who is working on the front-lines of society, in sometimes stressful situations, one deals a lot with fear and anxiety. Fear is an emotion that can hijack our nervous system. Brain science tells us that when we perceive a situation as threatening or even stressful, our limbic system-the fight or flight part of our brain- takes over. When this happens we do not have access to the rational/decision making part of our brain-we can take actions that are impulsive and unreasonable. 

Fear does not only arise when we feel we are in a life or death situation, it can come up when we’re exhausted, stressed, or isolated. Fear is a primal emotion that tells our nervous system we are not OK. In today’s society, it’s easy to feel like we’re not OK. Especially when you’re working on the frontlines, you see an immense amount of suffering and dysfunction and it’s exhausting. Even though you rationally do what needs to be done, your nervous system is operating as if something is terribly wrong. 

Obviously we need fear when we’re in a real fight or flight situation, but how often does that happen? I think when we actually examine our lives-we’re not in actual life threatening danger that often but the problem is our nervous system thinks we are. The problem is our bodies don’t know the difference between an actual and a perceived threat. So it’s how we perceive situations that really makes a difference. 

The key to working with fear is to familiarize ourselves with how it feels in our body. We can mistake fear for a lot of other feelings: stress, anxiety, irritation-like I said before, fear is basically telling our bodies we are not OK. And what are we afraid of? Underneath all that rationalization and pretending that, “yes everything is fine thank you”? We’re afraid that we’re not OK and that the world does not have our back. Fear is not always a dramatic emotion, it can be a low level wear you down day by day type of emotion, which we call anxiety.

So the first thing to do is check: Am I in a dangerous, life or death situation? 

Yes 𝤿  get out of there

No 𝤿  Read on 

Take 3 deep, deep breaths. Taking deep breaths helps regulate our nervous system and calm the amygdala which is the part of the brain telling your body to be on high alert. 

Feel your feet on the ground. Feel the sky above you. Feel a sense of 360 degree awareness. 

You are here. You belong. Repeat these words to yourself 3 times. “I’m here. I belong”. This reminds your body that you are OK, earth is below and sky is above and everything has a place. You belong. 

The Key to working with fear is to be more comfortable with Space. Not as in outer space but as in time and experience. We usually want to fill up space with reactions and activity based on a general sense of anxiety. When we can learn to relax and just BE we can allow things to be as they are and become more responsive to what’s actually happening, not fear or anxiety. 

When we practice working with fear and it’s close cousin anxiety in this way, we become more resilient and less reactionary which can help us in both our personal and professional lives. At this time when society is focused on how crucial front-line workers are to the functioning of society, we also need to focus on giving and practicing tools that help them do their jobs effectively. 

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