The following word vomit is based on a couple of things going on in my life now. First, I just listened to two episodes of the “Ologies” podcast that discussed fear (link). Much of what I talk about here comes from that podcast and you should listen to it. Second, working with a therapist over the last month or so has really been an enlightening and educational experience, so some of what I discuss here has come from my therapy sessions.
Sidebar: For those that don’t know, I see a therapist primarily to help me with my anxiety, which generally manifests itself as social anxiety. I’m also on medication (Buproprion), which has helped a lot, but therapy has been giving me the tools to deal with specific circumstances. Even if I wasn’t dealing with anxiety I would probably still see a therapist because I think everyone should, just like everyone should talk to a doctor, personal trainer, nutritionist, etc to maintain and improve their health. End sidebar.
I have been known to talk about how stressed I am, especially to my partner. Work deadlines, financial woes, rainy weather, a dog who eats plastic and gets obstructed, a dying grandfather, feeling like I don’t have a social network, heartburn from too many Coronas… it all weighs on me. My heart races, my stomach is tied in knots, I have nervous energy but nowhere to put it. I get stressed-the-fuck-out!
But that is only kinda true, because “stress” is really just a linguistic trick to disguise how I am really feeling, which is afraid. All stress is fear. ALL stress is really FEAR. Full stop.
Fear is a natural occurrence and it has helped many species spread their genes by not dying, but in today’s world our fear center has been hijacked and is running WAY too much. Fear is either factual or fictional. Factual fear includes seeing an approaching army on the horizon, being cornered by a very angry antelope, or literally not knowing where you will find food or water.
Luckily, if you are reading this blog right now then you are probably in a position where you have rarely if ever, faced factual fear. You are more privileged than 99% of human beings who ever lived were. So, in theory, our fear centers should basically be bored and never stimulated. But that isn’t the case, because fictional fear exists.
Fictional fear is when our body interprets a situation as potentially deadly and gets the “fight or flight” system roaring when there really is no danger to your life. Let’s take the most common fictional fear in my life, sending an email to a client.
Situation: Email client an update on project.
Internal Dialogue: Oh fuck. What if you messed everything up? What happens if when you hit send you accidentally somehow included an embedded image from your computer of your dick? What if you include the wrong people on the email and you lose business? Oh god! Why! Why! Why!
Biological Response: PREPARE TO FIGHT OF FLEE!!!!!!!
Reality: I didn’t mess everything up, but if I did then I can repair it. There are no dick pics on my computer and emails don’t magically attach things. I am hitting “reply”, how would I include the wrong people? And if I did, that is fine. I’m not going to lose business because someone got an email that didn’t pertain to them. Half the messages in my box don’t require a response from me.
I know all these things. I am fully aware that nobody is going to die if I make a mistake at work. Even if somehow I make such a monumental mistake that I lose my job then I will be okay. I have a savings account that can get me through until I find more work. And even if that savings account is somehow drained (as well as my crypto investments, retirement fund, and all other resources). I have friends, family, and a wife who will support me in the short term. But I guess it is possible they could die and the country’s (shitty) social safety net will collapse because we are invaded by… umm, Canada? Then I might DIE!
So, basically, my body is responding to “send an email” with “If you screw this up you will get fired, your savings will evaporate, your family and friends will all die, the country will collapse, and you will be surrounded by polite mounties”.
Seems a little farfetched.
The truth is, our fear centers are overworked because society is constantly putting is in a state of panic. At the foundational level, fear takes two forms and both of these forms are used very heavily by marketing and politicians in order to get power and/or money.
The first form is the fear of not being good enough. This makes sense evolutionarily. My ancestor wants to mate with some hot lady in the tribe but thinks he isn’t good enough. So, the fear powers up and he works harder to acquire resources, grow stronger, defeat enemies, dance seductively, whatever. The fear encourages action towards a necessary goal to spread genes.
But, in our world, most people are “good enough”. We are good enough to get food and shelter long enough find someone to mate with (which is really our biological purpose in life). Modern marketing tells us otherwise though and fills us with this fear. Our abs aren’t six-packy enough, our car isn’t new enough, our retirement account isn’t big enough, our dick/tits are too small, or our armpits don’t smell enough like Harmony, Peace, Gold Temptation, Excite, Dark Temptation, Essence, Apollo, Anarchy, Black Chill, or Phoenix (WTF Ax?). We are NEVER good enough because someone, somewhere is always better than us at everything and marketing would have us believe that perfection is what we should be striving for.
So, we become afraid and each commercial starts the fear process churning.
The second form of fear is the fear of being out of control. Again, this makes sense evolutionarily. My ancestor sees that it is starting to get dark and her shitty primate eyes aren’t working that great. She no longer has control of her own protection and she uses that fear to run to a cave in order to be safe. The fear encourages action towards a necessary goal to spread genes.
Unfortunately for us, we have shit-bird politicians and the media who have decided that keeping us afraid of everything is a great way to stay in power. (I actually don’t know if this is an explicit intention by the individuals or if it is more of a natural institutional occurrence given the incentives in place, but I digress). When you turn on the news we are told to be afraid of fucking everything.
Every time a murder happens we are made to feel like it could happen to us, even though violent crime is at historic lows. Every war around the world is a threat to our safety, even though the likelihood of a war on American soil is basically zero. Every terrorist attack is something that may happen in our town, even though you are infinitely more likely to die because of a shitty diet than a terrorist attack (or, as we shall see in a moment, fear may kill you).
Instead of being afraid of real dangers (of which there are few) and/or dedicating time and energy to minimizing the true things that will kill us like heart disease, cancer, etc. Our minds are constantly in “fight or flight” mode in response to things that have a near zero chance of hurting us or directly impacting us.
But, there is one thing that maybe we should fear a little bit, fear itself. Because fear can kill us (slowly).
Being constantly afraid is kind of like being a cigarette smoker. It slowly, over time, weakens your body, fucks up your system, and leads to an early death. When afraid our bodies go through some awesome changes that help outrun a Mastodon. Our breathing and heart rates accelerate, blood is rerouted to the necessary immediate survival systems, muscles get tense, blood glucose and serum calcium increase, alertness prevents sleep, and our body prioritizes what is necessary “now” over what is necessary “later”. Basically, it says “hey, we want sex and genetic spreading but first we gotta be alive so we will worry about long-term health if we survive”.
Those systems that help us stay alive in a life-threatening situation are supposed to be temporary and they cause all sorts of problems when they are turned on too much. Our biological emergency systems are not meant to be running 24/7. When we are afraid our bodies are not spending resources on proper cell regeneration (cancer is a problem with cell regeneration) or food digestion (affects obesity), and the increased blood pressure puts pressure on the cardiovascular system (heart disease). Too much fear kills, and we are constantly being told to be afraid.
So when I wake up in the morning instantly check Facebook I am killing myself. I find that I’m not good enough because one friend has a better body and another friend got a promotion and another friend is having more fun on vacation and another friend started a business. FIGHT OR FLIGHT! MUST GET BETTER!
I continue to kill myself by checking the news. I find that everything is out of my control and Trump is going to start WWIII, except our allies will be North Korea and Russia, and our enemies will be Europe and Canada. I see that another murder happened in a midwest town that I didn’t know existed. I find out that the stock market might crash and everything is DOOOOOOOMED. FIGHT OR FLIGHT! MUST REGAIN CONTROL!
And all day I inject myself with fear and slowly kill myself, all in response to things that are actually unlikely to harm me and are completely outside of my sphere of influence. Not only that, I am killing my partner and pets (maybe). Fear is contagious. When
stressed afraid our bodies release pheromones that tell others to be afraid. Makes sense for our evolutionary ancestors but kind of a shitty system today.
That is why I have found Stoicism to be so valuable because its philosophical foundation is based on figuring out what is in my sphere of influence and ignoring the rest. I can’t stop Trump from saying or doing crazy shit, and I also can’t stop a tornado from occurring on Mars, so why should I worry about either?
So, how do I try and handle fear now? First, I avoid unnecessary fear. I do my best not to check Facebook or the news. I also meditate daily, go for walks outside in nature, and study Stoicism. These practices have helped me calm down and get a better view of both what is truly happening and how I can affect it.
When it comes to addressing fear when I feel it the most effective tool for me is R.I.A. My therapist told me about this and I actually have a little sticky note on my computer screen that says RIA. RIA stands for Recognize, Identify, and Address. Usually, I don’t need to get to the Address portion.
Recognize means labeling what I’m feeling. Sometimes it takes a few steps to get to the foundation. Maybe I’m feeling anxious while talking to my partner. Instead of “I’m anxious”, I’ll mentally or verbally say “I’m feeling neglected”. Why am I feeling neglected? “I am feeling neglected because I feel like my voice isn’t being heard.” Why is that causing this response? “Because I feel out of control” (fear)
I am also really trying to change my language to stop me from identifying with my feelings. For example. Instead of “I’m stressed/afraid” it would be best to think “I am feeling stress/fear”. The stress isn’t part of who I am, it is something I am experiencing.
Identify involves determining if this is a factual fear or a fictional fear. Am I really out of control? Usually, no. Usually, there is something I can do to address the situation, which brings us to…
Address is doing what is necessary to calm the biological responses down and resolve the issue. Maybe I go for a walk or maybe I listen to music or maybe I masturbate. If something can be resolved then I talk with the appropriate people or take the necessary actions to resolve it.
RIA is so damn simple, but it has really been an eye-opener for me. I am increasingly able to address my fears and live more of the life I want. Thanks, Therapy!
PS: I couldn’t figure out where else to put this but I found it interesting. According to the podcast (seriously, listen to it), highly successful people don’t use the word “stressed”, instead they use the word “fear/afraid”. Stressed implies that the source of the problem is external, it creates a victimhood mentality, it minimizes your ability to change your circumstances. But, by identifying something as a fear you can overcome it or address it fully. Everyone feels fear, there is nothing to be done about that, but the way we address fear can be the difference between life and death.
Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a Snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?
Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”