When I led trips for Outward Bound, we spent a lot of time talking to our students about “real fear” vs. “perceived fear” and how difficult it is for your brain to discriminate between the two. It was easy to show Outward Bound students all of the ways we work to mitigate risk when rock climbing or mountaineering. We would then talk about how our brains still react as though the risk or threat is high (perceived risk) even though the real risk can actually be rather low with proper precautions. The Outward Bound instructors would then teach the students to calm down their brains (deep breaths, repeating specific phrases, talking to a partner, even simply smiling) because a calm rock climbing partner is able to make good decisions and stay safe.
Now as a school psychologist I’m asking many of the same questions about the fear I feel with the pandemic. How do I self regulate and help my students and my own children regulate so we can make the best decisions for our family about rejoining school or activities? The type of fear I am feeling doesn’t seem to fit in either the real fear bucket or the perceived fear bucket. When I found myself awake for the 5th night in a row, I decided to search online for ways to represent this new kind of fear, and here’s what I came up with, which now decorates the door of my office at school:
My door this year is my visual representation of how I want to feel about the fear that keeps bubbling up. I’ll start at the bottom: The poster has two brightly colored children playing pirates on a dock while there are several dark and dangerous sharks below. The pirate costumes, imaginary pirate ships in the background, and happy play is exactly what I want for our children as they grow up this year. However, our world does have these dangerous sharks, so what do the adults need to do to protect our children’s childhood and also keep them safe?
That is where the next two posters come into play. I need the daily reminder of the fact that there are things I can control and things I can’t control. As an adult I will make the best possible decisions to keep my family safe (the pug wearing a mask) and then I need to let go of all of the “what if” fears that I can’t control. I need to let go of these fears for the same reason climbers need to let go of perceived fear, because being constantly afraid doesn’t allow me to be a good parent, teacher, or the person I want to be.
At school, our faculty just spent two weeks creating procedures to reduce as much of the “real risk” as possible. We talked about our hopes and dreams for this year and we also did the hard work of looking at and discussing how we can take care of ourselves and our own perceived fears. We feel ready to keep kids safe, whether that means reducing risk during in-person learning or making the difficult decision to move school online. And while the new kind of fear that isn’t quite “real” and isn’t quite “perceived” certainly remains, somehow representing it on my door makes it more manageable. I hope you will join me in trying to name and show our fears, joys, hopes and emotions now and into the future.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.