Fear, Anxiety, Action!

June 18, 2018 · 4 minute read

I shared the last post about why to write with a couple of friends, hoping that it wouldn’t bore them. It didn’t! And they wrote back to me.

I first heard from Heather: “What do you think is the fear that underlies the anxiety?” She asked. When I read the question, I almost cringed. I had mixed feelings about the question and I was surprised to feel that way. So I dug some more.

On the one hand, I liked the question, because it is realistic. You have to eventually lay out the anxiety asking yourself what is it that you are afraid would happen? You have to decompose your anxiety and break it down into small problems that you can manage to solve.

On the other hand, the question reminded me of the too-often-exercised common rationality that I’ve come to despise sometimes. The common rationality is too restrictive for insisting on seeing everything as a “simple problem”. It was as if the question was telling me: “Here’s a simple problem, you are anxious. We know fear leads to anxiety, so if you don’t want to be anxious, you simply need to face (and perhaps eliminate) your fears.”

But it’s not so simple. It is not as if by exposing that fear underlies anxiety, we have also come up with a solution that can be effectively exercised. The question formulated that way leaves no room for other elements (besides fear and anxiety) to emerge and interact so that a minimum viable image of the situation is created. A clear enough image that could explain our experiences usefully and can move us into action. Otherwise, and not knowing what else mattered in the picture, what could I do with the mere revelation that “fear leads to anxiety?” Don’t we all know this already? Aren’t we all afraid and anxious?

A Minimum Viable Image

It was Dr. Peterson’s ideas that expanded and illuminated the picture for me. In his talks and his new book, he argues that asking “why people are anxious and depressed”, is asking the question backwards. There is no mystery in fear, anxiety and depression. We have all the reasons to be anxious. We are vulnerable and we know it. Life can hurt us. People can hurt us. Our jobs can hurt us. We don’t know much. And we are going to die.

The great mystery, however, is why some people don’t get anxious despite the fear induced upon them by the tragedy of life? If everybody has fears, but some manage to not get anxious, then there must be something else besides the fear that affects the equation. That element which changes the equation is our willingness to voluntarly face our fear. And the reason it is important to articulate the concept of voluntary action explicitly, is because it introduces another element to the picture.

Studies show that when dangers and stress are faced voluntarily and through choice, those circuits and systems associated with “approach and challenge” get activated in us. We have these mechanisms inside us that seems to have been designed to respond to fear. Whereas when stress is faced involuntarily, a whole bunch of other systems are used to cope with the situation: systems of defence, aggression and withdrawal. These systems are associated with negative emotions. This is how the new picture, the new formula, looks like:

It was apparently important to me to have a better picture of the situation before laying out my fears. It is important to know “why you have to face your fears.” It was important to know that fear is a constant. That it would always be in the equation as long as we live. It was important to know that by knowing your fears, you won’t become less afraid. You will become more afraid as the naivety wears off and you realize that the world is more dangerous than you thought before.

It was equally important to know that although there is fear, there is also something inside us that responds to that fear and grows. Something that transforms the fear into movement. If we fail to mention our built-in capacity to cope with fear, all we are left with is the simple formula that fear causes anxiety and therefore we might attempt to eliminate the fear or subdue and control it. And for our false expectations, we might become ever more secure and still anxious.

It is good to talk to people

If Heather didn’t ask me that question, and if Pat didn’t write to me about actions, and if I didn’t feel what I felt, I wouldn’t have articulated my thoughts which is the whole point of maintaining a blog. It is good to talk to people.