Can I Be Happy & Afraid at the Same Time?

We’ve seen it all lately: The heartbreaking stories, the silly songs, life-affirming courage, dark humor and touching sentiments in words and videos. But does that mean the people who laugh are not afraid? That those who are scared can’t enjoy a sunset? And is it possible to feel conflicting emotions at the same time? Stressful circumstances challenge our self-awareness and raise new questions.

Control & knowledge

In times of crisis, it’s natural to seek a feeling of control. We want to know what’s going on, so we can prepare for what’s next. And we look for knowledge wherever we can find it. So it’s important to look at the source. We need to remember that we can’t feel one way all the time; many emotions can arise in any situation.

Andy Groggel, MA, Director of Health & Healing, Canyon Ranch Tucson, had a moment of self-discovery to help him through rocky times. “On his best days,” Groggel says, “my internal source of ‘knowing’ is oriented to my values and the earth itself.” But when the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming clear, he turned to external sources for the latest news and to his Canyon Ranch colleagues for wisdom.

“While the news stream serves a very important purpose of keeping me informed and safe,” Groggel says, “the tone and quality of the delivery imprints on my experience of the day. If the experts are worried, I worry. If the experts rejoice, I breathe deeper.”

Most people have struggled with this paradox. You may be following the news with good intentions but are frightened by what you hear. At the same time, you might be trying to maintain mindfulness and appreciation. Maybe you’ve wondered how people can laugh in times like these, yet you find yourself laughing, too. Or, you’re taking every precaution against a virus yet go wild with an extra scoop of ice cream. It’s hard to sustain one mood through it all.

One small, perfect moment

Groggel, who is an integrative life coach, had an experience that put things into real-time perspective for him. He had been toggling back and forth between dominant news sources and social media reports geared to set off alarms.

“I began to panic,” he says. “My chest constricted, I was cracking my knuckles and tapping my foot, and I caught my eyes darting back and forth toward my backyard.”

He closed his phone and walked outside to his garden box, where his collards were flowering. Then he simply observed the scene.

“Two or three types of bees and pollen-loving flies buzzed about, positively delighted by the bounty they stumbled across,” Groggel recalls. “A hummingbird took a nervous glance over its shoulder before diving into the trumpet vine growing nearby. A huge smile came across my face as I leaned into this beauty, breathed deeply and had a moment of gratitude.”

That moment faded quickly once Groggel remembered that he had just connected with the global crisis of Covid-19. How could he be enjoying a moment of beauty at a time like this?

“How selfish of me to pause and walk outside to connect with gratitude and peace! But as I engaged my inner observer,” he says, “ I challenged myself to be less self-critical. Knowing that all emotions are welcome, I wondered if it might be possible to entertain both feelings at the same time.”

Groggel gave it a try. He focused back on the collard blooms and bumble bees and the soft yellow flowers contrasted with the deep collard green. He took in another deep breath and admitted to himself that he felt both happiness and fear in that moment.

“In doing this, I understood the importance of allowing both feelings to flow,” Groggel says. “I concluded that there was no greater place to feel afraid than in the presence of beauty. That new truth has nourished my approach ever since.”