I used to think that Roosevelt’s inclusion of “Freedom from Fear” in his list of the “Four Freedoms” was a bunch of liberal, wishy-washy, feel-good, political garbage. Looking at the concept with a bit more perspective, though, perhaps he was grappling around the edges of some greater truth.
If you think about it, fear is the primary tool by which we allow others to control our lives. Fear of loneliness, fear of persecution, fear of bankruptcy, fear of loss… Each and every one of these encourages us to hand the reins of our life over to someone else- someone who promises us “freedom from fear”.
Do we get freedom from fear? Well, does Ax body spray really cause women to swarm all over the man who wears it?
In virtually every aspect of our lives we are buying some bill of goods, real or metaphorical, to alleviate our fear. I know some people who are afraid to drink milk that has reached the “sell by” date- they would rather buy more than trust their noses. People often let fear dictate their vote for a particular politician. Some ladies buy makeup or hair products out of fear that they will be rejected if they don’t look “pretty enough”. The other day I even ate a doughnut out of the unreasonable fear that I might never get to try that flavor- a fear of curiosity unfulfilled.
That’s silly. It’s true, but in hindsight it was stupid- ridiculous even.
Why do we allow ourselves to be ruled by our fear? The more scientifically minded might offer up the Flight-or-Fight Reflex as an answer. That strikes me as missing the point. When I find myself compelled to buy six cans of soup because I’m afraid to pass up the sale price, I’m not quivering in terror. My heart isn’t pounding to divert blood from my secondary organs to my muscles.
No, that fear is purely in my head. Indeed, the only biochemical responses, perhaps a release of Corticoliberin and Norepinephrine, are pretty much just affecting my brain. Well, okay, the Corticoliberin is getting my body primed for Flight-or-Flight, but I’m not actually experiencing the whole enchilada.
Speaking of enchiladas, here’s a quick recipe.
Have you ever heard of a Panic Disorder? Panic Disorders are psychological problems that cause people to manifest full-blown Fight-or-Flight reactions at inappropriate times, say, doing the laundry or getting the mail.
If a person’s brain can trigger all of the physiological responses associated with being attacked by a rabid tyrannosaurus- in the complete absence of a rabid anything, then where is the fear coming from?
Yeah, our heads.
Fear is not the reality of a threat, it is just one possible psychological response to it. We experience fear when we push reality out of our Prefrontal Cortex (the “thinking” brain) and on to our Limbic System (the “lizard” brain). In the event of a giant zombie panda attack, this might be useful, for instance by making you run before you’ve even thought about it. It’s a lot less useful in the event of a dinner date.
Imagine that you are out on a date with the person of your dreams and you say something really, really dumb. Your date looks shocked and offended. Where does your brain go?
How much of your cognitive power is focused on repairing the situation? Ideally all of it, right? Unfortunately, if you’re like me, a huge chunk of your mind is playing out increasingly awful scenarios- this date will be a failure, my date will never speak to me again, they might tell all their friends get me “blacklisted”, this might be on YouTube…
All of that fear is actually getting in the way of my ability to solve the real problem. In computer terms, I’m trying to play a real high-end video game with awesome graphics while running six other video games in the background. If I want to enjoy my video game, I need to turn off the background games so that I’m free to focus on the main event, or to drop the metaphor- to focus on my life.
An awful lot of what I do to liberate my life revolves around trying not to play the fear games. Prior planning and reasonable precautions are fine, desirable in fact, because they can help to prevent fear. Ultimately, though, I have to assume responsibility for redirecting my thoughts away from the outcomes I don’t want and towards the ones I do.
Though it’s incomplete, here is a quick list of ideas to help confront fear in the moment:
- Short-circuit the fear game by taking it to a plausible, but silly, end result. There’s a series of electronics ads on TV recently that does this. For instance, a man drinks spoiled milk and turns into a zombie, ultimately spawning a zombie horde that terrorizes the nation. How goofy can your fear game get?
- Practice identifying the parts of your fear game that are completely out of your control. Then next time you hit one of these uncontrollable parts, rewind to the decision that brought you there and explore a different outcome.
- Try replaying the scenario leading up to the fear in your head, but this time you avoided or fixed the problem. This can actually be useful in helping you deal with an already manifested issue. For instance, if my computer is frozen and I’m flipping out about losing my term paper, taking a step back and imagining that everything is fine can sometimes help clear my head enough to let me deal with the problem consciously instead of reactively.
- Sometimes acceptance is the only reasonable course of action. Once bad stuff has already taken place, sometimes we can only deal with the consequences. Allowing the drink to be thrown in your face or letting yourself get fired might be the best possible outcome. Contrast that with putting your limbic brain in charge and tossing your ex-boss out the window. Getting fired might put you out on the street, but killing someone will likely get you incarcerated or killed yourself- not exactly a good way to liberate your life!
I expect to write a lot more on the topic of mastering fear and turning my attention towards hope. This is an epic journey for me, one that I’ve been working on for years, and it’s not over yet- not by a long shot.