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At the Threshold of a New Year

By Deb Theriault


Facing Fear


Well, here we are….again. We’ve finished 2015, and are looking ahead to a fresh new year. Time after time, as long as we’re alive on this planet, this is what we do. At the beginning of a new, twelve-month cycle, we acknowledge the cycle that has passed and celebrate the one that is about to begin.


Most people mark this changeover with a party, celebration or other fun event. Others recognize it with solemn reflection or a religious ritual. Either way, it’s pretty much the same: you review the year that is closing, noting the good and the bad times. Then, you consign these to the past as you look forward to the coming year, which is ripe with good potential and wonderful possibilities. (If you’re the optimistic type, you also make resolutions).


But, for some stroke survivors (or those with a serious illness, for that matter), this annual passage can be a time of mixed emotions. Sure, just like everyone else, we’d like to put the year behind us and move on to better things. However, for some of us, instead of looking back and reminiscing, we’re looking over our shoulders to see whether the “boogey man” of the past year is hitching a ride into the next.


There can be a nagging uncertainty that the coming year will not be better, but rather, will turn out to be much the same, with us being plagued by challenging, health-related problems followed by monumental hurdles that must be cleared, for us to be up and running on firm ground once again.


Worse yet, many of us fear that the coming year will be rife with events that are even more difficult than those of the past 12 months. Our imaginations may run wild with dozens of “what ifs” that can “pre-fail” our up-and-coming year. We catastrophize until we drain the last bit of joy out of what should be a time of hopeful anticipation for better days.


This isn’t to say that we should not be concerned about what the future will bring. But, obsessing to the point of distraction is unproductive, depressing and downright dangerous (it raises your blood pressure, and increases the stress hormones in your body, which can set you up for another stroke).


So…what to do? Well, there are many ways to deal with unreasonable fears. Some people simply pray or meditate, or hand their thoughts over to a higher power, or let their fears float past them as they coax their thoughts into a more positive direction. Others prefer to use special fear, phobia or anxiety management techniques. Regardless of what you do, it’s healthier to confront fears head-on, and to analyze them in a realistic manner, than to let them pull you under.


The truth is, there’s “big stuff” and “small stuff”, there are realistic concerns and irrational fears, and there are things we can control and things that are out of our hands. Everyone has choices to make regarding all of these. As the saying goes, “don’t sweat the small stuff”. I’ll also add, don’t give in to irrational fears and don’t fret about stuff that you can’t control. At some point, you have to let things go. Here’s hoping that, during this coming year, everyone’s fears are manageable and unfounded, and that everyone has the robust health that they truly deserve.


(There’s more about fear management techniques, below, for those who are curious; otherwise skip to the last paragraph in this article. Note: Unwarranted fears should not to be confused with clinical depression, which must be diagnosed and treated by a health care professional. When in doubt, see your doctor.)


If you’ve read this far, then you’re curious about techniques to manage irrational fears. One technique that I use is “thought stopping”, which is refusing to entertain irrational fears by emphatically saying the word “no”, either in your mind to yourself, or out loud (in private, or course). Sometimes you have to do this several times, or to do it periodically until the negative thoughts dissipate.


I use this technique often, but in addition to saying “no” to myself out loud, when my fears are raging out of control, I add a gentle “admonishment” to myself, by saying “alright, that’s enough”, or “that’s it; stop it right now”, etc. Even though that may seem harsh to some people, this technique works for me. I’m almost always able to halt the bad thoughts in their tracks and move on to a more productive thought process.


Another fear management technique is to practice being optimistic for short periods of time, e.g., just tell yourself to not obsess on a fear for the next 10 minutes. During that time, don’t let negative thoughts creep in. If your mind wanders into negative territory, gently remind yourself to keep on track or redirect your thoughts back to some positive imagery.


When you can keep bad thoughts at bay for ten minutes, extend that time to 15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc., until you can keep negative thoughts at bay for an hour or more. Again, promise yourself that you’re only going to redirect your mind away from your fears and negative thoughts for a short while, then stretch that out a little at a time. Handling fears in “short bites” makes the task seem more manageable.


There are many other practical ways to handle fears, and many more anxiety management techniques out there. Below are links to a couple of helpful sites. Just Google “anxiety management techniques” to find others. (By the way, these techniques can also work for feeling “blue” / melancholy and similar problems.) (Note: this website disputes the value of “thought stopping”; I disagree, but like their other recommendations, and the nice way the website is set up.)



So, as we’re perched on the threshold of a new year, let’s celebrate by looking forward to a better, healthier and prosperous 2016. Happy New Year, everyone.





Deb survived her third stroke in 2006. In addition to her work with the Stroke Network, Deb is Treasurer for the W. Pa. Division of the US Fencing Assoc., does community gardening in her neighborhood and is a professionally-trained artist who has been specializing in figure drawing for many years.



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