Why Do So Many of Us Live in Fear?

Why Do So Many of Us Live in Fear?

S. Rufus

"If only they knew: For us, fear is not a choice. A little fear is necessary for survival: Ask any gazelle. But too much fear can be as crippling as too little."

My friend yelled at a frozen computer: What's wrong with you? Work!

A tiny rainbow-striped ball spun mid-screen. Faint grinding noises issued from within.

Why are you doing this to me? My friend pounded the desk. I was just using you, as usual. Then—bang. Should I sit waiting while you may or may not regain semi-functionality—or shut you down?

That monologue felt freakishly familiar. I wanted to tell my friend: I say those same things every day—not to my computer, but to my brain.

I wanted to tell my friend: I say those things just as you say them, in desperation and frustration, but it's worse because I can't shut my brain down. A brain is a body's computer: responding to stimuli, connecting disparate entities, programmed to translate, "talk," solve problems, search and store data, reveal results. And some of us have brains that, like computers, freeze.

Because some of us live in fear. Sometimes it takes the shape of pessimism: We will miss our plane and never get refunded or arrive. Sometimes it takes the shape of anxiety: Did I mispronounce his name? Do I smell smoke? What was that sound?!

Sometimes it takes the shape of panic: OMG my heart my breath I'll die. It also takes the shape of obsessions, compulsions, nightmares, phobias, which people who don't live in fear—aka the majority—experience rarely or not at all. Not that they are all brave and we are not. More on this later. But those who don't live in fear by nurture and/or nature have been spared this sticky and thin—sometimes thicker, sometimes suffocating—membrane of inherent dread that coats us live-in-fearers, head to toe. Not that we want it to. Who would?

This is the first fact that those who don't live in fear should understand before they shame and scold us by calling us scaredycats and snarling Just grow up.

Or ask us What is there to cry about? or What could possibly go wrong?

If only they knew: For us, fear is not a choice.

A little fear is necessary for survival: Ask any gazelle. But too much fear can be as crippling as too little.

Things happened to some of us that blitzed the normal terror-regulation algorithm, altering our biochemistry: Trauma—yes, even non-physical kinds—can spur chronic hyperactivity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain structure that detects and signals fear. Stuck in high gear, the amygdala constantly commands the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release the stress hormone, cortisol. Meanwhile, the traumatized brain's prefrontal cortex, whose job is to assess threat levels, becomes habitually underactive, unable to say reliably, authoritatively: OK, no danger here.

So our brains perceive nearly everything as scary.

We who live in fear can sometimes quell our terrors via concentration, meditation, medication, distraction and other mostly temporary strategies. At least those two hours I spent researching sea-chantey lyrics weren't spent checking and re-checking locks. We fight fear, but for us that means having to fight it not just on actual battlefields or burning roofs but nearly everywhere, including places where regular people could even fathom feeling fear, such as bathtubs and laundromats. We live-in-fearers fear not only pain and death but things our small selves felt could kill us: blame, humiliation, closeness, anger, censure, failure, trust.

What happened to us? You remember. The specific story does and doesn't matter, because we can neither alter history nor deflect its damage in retrospect. Telling ourselves or being told, today, that what happened back then should not have decimated us doesn't un-decimate us, and possibly renders us more helplessly, self-hatingly ashamed.

Rather than strive to turn back clocks, we must learn to inhabit what for us seems a perilous present. We must find our strategies—such as sea-chantey lyrics—but the first is self-acceptance. We, the fearful, take longer than non-fearers to do seemingly basic tasks: not because we are lazy, stupid or otherwise bad (this is the hardest part to accept) but because our brains are wired (through no fault of our own) to perceive in those tasks a million risks.

Courage is not a lack of fear. Courage is feeling afraid yet still doing what one must. Imagining that every breeze is almost a tornado, every sparrow rabid, yet still opening that door and stepping out.

Read more from S. Rufus.

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