Fear is Just a Chemical
I had a pretty scary dream the other night.
My son and I were sitting on the floor in our basement, building a fort out of interlocking foam squares. Except in this dream version of our basement, I had built the house just a little bit out into the ocean, and the foundation out of sheets of thick glass so you could see the whales and fish swimming around you whenever you were down there.
Except there had been a flaw in the design and at this moment we heard a deep, sickening Cracking Glass sound, followed by the immediate rush of thousands of tonnes of water rushing in to the basement and filling it up. I looked into my son’s frightened eyes as he looked into mine, and grabbed him to get ready to swim. But even then I knew there was a good chance we were about to drown together.
Thankfully I woke up right at that moment. My heart was pounding and I was still as scared as hell. My foot was poking out of the bottom of the blanket. “Danger! Anything out there could bite your foot off!” I pulled it in for safety. My upper body was still out of the blankets. “Danger! That part of you is exposed to predators as well! Make no sudden moves, and slowly cover yourself up.”
By this point, I had been awake for a few seconds and was starting to come to my senses. “Ok, idiot. Relax. You just had a dream. Look! You’re safe in bed and more importantly little MM is still sleeping like an angel in his own bed down the hall. There’s your wife sleeping right there too.” I felt a rush of joy realizing that everything was still fine.
But the heart was still going and I suddenly found myself worrying about the strangest things. “It’s raining outside. Is the roof going to leak? Did I leave anything outside? Is the rental house OK? Did I forget to do anything important that is now overdue? Am I really prepared for that Ecuador trip in a few weeks?”
As the minutes passed and I thought about what was going on, I realized something profound and useful: that fear and worry are really just chemical responses. Sure, at an intellectual level we all probably already know this – your body will sometimes decide to squeeze the ol’ Cortisol and Adrenaline bottles into the blood stream. It’s the Fight or Flight stuff that happens to all of us animals. But only by feeling it on such a visceral level and watching myself turn into a cowering crazy man under the blankets, did I realize how powerful it is, and how much it affects us in even in daily life.
The revelation was even more apparent as the hormones cleaned themselves up from my bloodstream and I was able to smile again and fall back asleep. And the next time I woke up, I had the opposite feeling about life in general. The sun was peeking through the shutters, birds were singing in the trees around my bedroom window, and it was start of another grand day with no alarm clock or mandatory work. “Wow, beautiful morning out there. I am sure glad we got that rain last night, the gardens will love it. And look at this fine house, is it really mine? What!? I just realized I also have a rental house that is happily taking care of itself. And I sure am looking foward to that Ecuador trip.. what a blast. What an amazing life.”
My whole perspective of the same set of life details had completely changed within the span of a few hours, from standard happiness, to extreme worry, and back to gratitude. Just because of the secretion of a microscopic quantity of some damned hormones I didn’t even ask for in the first place.
There’s a lot to be gained in life by thinking about this, and reminding yourself at every moment possible. Are you scared to apply for a new job, switch careers, or search for a new house in a better location? That’s not because it’s a truly scary thing to do. It’s because there is a drop of liquid about as big as a flea that has been squirted in to your blood stream and is making you just slightly scared. And it’s not helping you.
About 100 people wrote me comments and emails asking me hysterically why I was seen on Yahoo wearing a fishing hat instead of a crash helmet when biking around my quiet neighborhood. The reason is because those little fear chemical bottles don’t squirt for me when I ride a bike. Because, like most things in life, it’s not worth being afraid of.
I have recently heard from people who are afraid to invest their cash or use it to pay off a mortgage, afraid to take it out of the “safety” of a guaranteed-loss-after-inflation 1% savings account. Other people are afraid to quit or even scale down their jobs, despite having several times the savings needed to live forever off of the passive returns. Afraid to try new things, afraid to make the stretch to invite a new friend over for dinner, afraid of the imaginary doom and gloom that will be brought down upon us by this government or the next one.
Your assignment, then, is to notice and remind yourself that all fear, unless it involves rapidly moving weapons, teeth, or claws, is actually bullshit. All fear can be cured. You can attack it with the mind, by imagining those little squirty bottles located right above the kidneys, laughing at them, and shutting them off.
And you can attack it with the body, by just doing what you’re afraid of. And suddenly, it won’t be scary, and you’ll laugh at your wimpy past self. Because oddly enough, Action Cures Fear.
It’s one of the most useful things you can learn as early as possible in life, and I wish this had been drilled into me as a young child. It’s more important than arithmetic or chemistry class or calculus. So that’s your assignment for this weekend – cure one of your own fears, and come back on Monday a bit richer.
Update: in the comments section below, it looks like we have spawned yet another bike helmet safety debate. While this in itself is a little off-topic, I am always was especially intrigued by the inevitable comments that come in with graphic descriptions of head injuries. “In the newspaper, they said there was blood all over the pavement!”, “my aunt works in the ER..” and other such entertainment.
This is the perfect illustration of fear as it should NOT be applied to decision making. Scary stories are of no use to you – only scientific studies of large groups have any hope of helping you decide what activities are actually dangerous. And thus, I tend to delete irrelevant scary stories from this comments section, just as I avoid them in real life, because they are not helping. My apologies and remember that your own blog awaits as a place for all the scariest stories you can muster!
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