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Fear, Anger, Action

David Spero

September 14, 2011

Many of us spent last week surrounded by fear, the media telling us nonstop to be afraid. Since I don’t believe much in the media, I ignored it as best I could. But it reminded me of my feelings about chronic illness — how powerlessness, fear, and anger can make us miserable and interfere with our lives.

Fear can paralyze, the famous “deer-in-the-headlights” phenomenon. Diabetes can be a major source of fear. People all have horror stories that they’ve heard or seen. People who remember how their uncle lost his leg to diabetes or their mother died from kidney failure at 55 are likely to think there’s nothing they can do. So why try?

Getting bad numbers on a test or developing the beginnings of a new complication can set off a crippling fear reaction. So can well-intentioned warnings or prescriptions from doctors. “Lose 50 pounds, exercise regularly, see me every three months, and reduce stress, and you’ll be all right.” You know you can’t do it — at least not right away — so you’re doomed. Might as well splurge on cake.

Fear is a stressful but natural response to powerlessness. It keeps us out of the way, not bothering anyone. To get moving, we have to work through the fear. We may have to get angry.

From Fear to Anger
When I wrote a blog post called “Angry with God,” Barb commented that anger and fear are two sides of the same coin.

Look at the fear involved, face it. Going around it never gets rid of it. Also writing about the anger/fear relieves the mind of useless thinking. Let it flow through the pen onto the paper and face it.

So when scared about complications or about endless wars, can we follow Barb’s advice? Write or talk about what, exactly, we are afraid of. What the worst is that could happen, and how would we deal with it? And what we can do to prevent it?

Let yourself feel angry about the situation. It’s not fair, but it’s the way things are, and if you can come up with one or two ideas of how to change the situation, you will feel you have some control. You won’t be so powerless.

From Anger to Action
Anger burns, but most of the time it is more helpful than fear. It motivated me last weekend. I marched in a beautiful peace action on the Golden Gate Bridge calling for an end to the wars. I was still angry afterward, but I felt a lot better.

The same goes for action about illness. When my multiple sclerosis seems to be getting worse, I can feel helpless. To recover, I have to identify something I can do for myself, whether it’s more rest, more exercise, a diet change, or whatever.

The American Diabetes Association Web site says,

When you feel threatened, afraid, or frustrated, anger is a normal response. But you can put your anger to work for you… Anger can be a force for action, change, and growth.

Making a change in your life is a constructive use of anger. If we can’t use it constructively, anger becomes destructive. We may take the anger out on those around us. When Joe Nelson wrote about anger here in 2007, he received some heartbreaking comments.

Chris wrote,

I have been a type 1 Diabetic since I was 11 years old and I am now 27. I have rage and anger issues that are so bad they scare people… I have lost a wife already and my girl of one year has just walked out on me, all because of my rage and anger… if anyone can help please let me know… I will do anything.

If we don’t use anger constructively or take it out on others, we may take it out on ourselves. On my “Angry with God” piece, Kath commented, “Suppressed anger turns into depression… see if there is a way to change your situation.”

We can also take anger out on ourselves by ignoring our health. Joe’s article tells the story of two boys who were angry “about everything: mom, school, the doctor, and me. They denied that they were angry, and meanwhile they were doing poorly in school, refusing to monitor blood glucose levels, and missing injections — their control was horrible.” But “[another] kid was clear about his anger: His mom was making him pay more attention to his diabetes and he didn’t want to. [He] didn’t want or need her continued nagging. His control was decent and was active enough with his self-care that he really didn’t need any further help.”

I see similarities between coping with illness and coping with the world situation. If we are being constantly soaked with messages of fear, what can we do about it? All the stress isn’t doing anyone any good. But if people start turning fear to anger, on whom will they take it out? What’s a constructive use? Kath wrote, “If the situation can’t be changed, look for a way to change your feelings.” But how? As Chris said, “If anyone can help, please let me know.”



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