What is fear, really?
What is pain, really?
What is their relationship?
Listen to the pain, it connects you to reality.
Pain is a signal from the body that something is wrong. It helps you preemptively avoid mortal risks.
If we didn’t have pain you’d likely have died a long time ago. Or more likely never have existed, as an ancestor in a far more dangerous era would have died.
Pain is incredibly primal, we share it with the entire animal kingdom, it is universal.
This system is so sophisticated it does not even rely on your memory in a conscious level. As we’ve explored previously, our brain has numerous layers that communicate through barriers of abstraction.
An influential neurologist and psychologist, Édouard Claparède, a contemporary to Carl Jung, demonstrated this to a counter-intuitive outcome.
The power of fear.
Édouard Claparède’s patient had a short-term memory-loss issue, Anterograde Amnesia. She could not make new memories.
He visited with her every day and every day she would, of course, not recognise him. But one day (perhaps unethically) he hid a thumbtack in his hand and when they shook hands it jabbed her. She recoiled and they continued on. All intuitive.
The surprising part: the next day when he visited with her, she as always did not recognise him, but when he extended his hand to shake as always, she hesitated. She recognised the danger, while she did not know why.
How often have you grown anxious or agitated and not known why?
Below the surface
Fear operates below our conscious thoughts, we are talented at retrospectively rationalising it, fitting it to our view of the world. But this is the gift of fear.
It does not have to listen to rhyme or reason, it just is.
Every element of our psychology has been naturally selected to have a purpose. So let’s explore why are we are ‘doomed’ to be plagued by fear?
Ultimately we’re monkeys with anxiety.
We are the duality of our bodily sensations and our ephemeral thoughts that flow through our minds. Like a contestant in one of those gameshows, standing in a sealed phonebooth, money swirling around from vents at the bottom.
We snatch at emotions and thoughts like they’re bills in our phonebooth of life. In the chaotic swirl in front of us, it’s all that makes sense, isn’t it?
Anxiety is an ‘invented’ physical pain to simulate potential future pain. Risks that you recognise from your thoughts and memories of past experiences. It’s physical pain that our mind inflicts on our body.
You can live the future, now.
The ability to project future risks into the present and live their effects right now is humanity’s greatest gift.
The ability to extend cause-and-effect relationships far into the future allows us to strategise at a far more sophisticated level than our animal kingdom counterparts.
This is the bridge that crosses the duality. It binds ephemeral whims in the higher plane of conscious thought to the primal sensations of the body.
- You have a thought.
- Your body generates cortisol and adrenaline hormones and you feel the stress response. A physical reaction. A REAL pain. Thanks body.
- You are able to make a more incentivised decision because it’s not just abstract. You feel it right now.
It keeps us grounded. Creating an incentive to make choices now that will avoid pain and risk in the future.
The major issue arises that because the pain is generated through a simulation it is not tied to the actual amount of risk.
It is at risk of being way, way worse in your imagination than if it were to occur in reality.
Furthermore by the time you feel a real pain, the pain itself has passed. What you are feeling is the anxiety of the idea of the pain returning. This is counterintuitive and may even sound like nonsense but bear with me.
If you prick your finger with a thumbtack, by the time your brain registers the pain and commits to a reflex the instant of the interaction has passed.
The brain sends panic signals to remove you from the stimulus that caused the pain but the pain itself was fleeting.
The more often the pain is repeated and the more severe the impact the greater the panic response will be, you will become conditioned. Until it is overwhelming.
A common element of chronic pain is the psychological impact of constantly experiencing pain and trying everything to no avail to escape from it.
If your resting state is to be in pain, the foundation you are attempting to build upon is going to be shaken from the get-go. But this is separate to the anxiety of the fear.
Pain and the fear of the pain are two separate phenomenons but we often conflate them.
For a long time I could not sit, stand or lie down without experiencing severe and consistent lower-back pain, it became so bad that I lost my ability to perceive how straight I was sitting or standing or lying.
How do you sleep when you are in fear of not ‘sleeping straight’ and making the back pains worse tomorrow, while not being able to perceive if you’re lying at an angle, all the while experiencing the pain itself?
You lose the tightness of your perception of your body, the ephemeral cloud of bodily sensations that defines where your skin meets the air. Your perception becomes a mess of pain signals and interference.
It’s like your microwave interfering with your WiFi. How can you focus on anything when that is happening in your nervous system?
Ultimately, I was persistent enough to work through my situation, exploring different solutions to the root problem. It happened that I had a case where it was solvable after years of this, in fact it was caused by a more damaging problem elsewhere in my life, solving that solved them both.
I would never have found that more latent, insidious issue if my body hadn’t been blaring sirens at me everyday.
For many people it is not that simple, and for that I am grateful every day.
It does return occasionally, but knowing a method to solve it has meant that it does not cause so much anxiety when it arrises. Because I know, “this too shall pass”.
Being armed is the difference
A shift in perspective due to being armed with a tool.
It creates a ceiling in my mind to avoid predicting that every day it will get worse to infinity, which would have multiplied the fear response you have today.
I instead can believe that each day it will get a bit better. A fundamental difference.
The first takeaway from this is that pain and fear in their organic sense are not our enemies.
In most cases it is when we do not listen to them that they become a problem.
Repressing them and ignoring them gets us into trouble. Running is not the answer. Avoidance Behaviour is a common response to feeling anxiety over something. It is defined as a “maladaptive coping mechanism”. It will mount and exacerbate the situation, not improve it:
- The stimulus makes you feel anxiety, for an unrelated reason – this is a physical pain.
- The next time you come into that situation you avoid entering into it.
- You avoided it so you didn’t feel that physical pain of the anxiety response.
- You learn that not entering into that scenario spared you the pain, because you locked in the response of not heading into it head-first. That was certainty, and certainty is calming.
- So while the stimulus may have posed no danger to you at all, you have now created a self-fulfilling prophecy where you avoid the stimulus to actually avoid the anxiety.
- What you have come to fear, is fear itself. And that is a recursive cycle you DO NOT want to get into.
The second take away is that the invented response will be based on how severe YOU think it will be. We do not have a good calibration point for risk any more because we live in a pretty secure situation for the most part (no lions, tigers and bears, oh my).
Your Values are your sensitivities
For me, issues at my job, a botched sales meeting, a bad investment can all seem like mortal risks. For you, you will have your own “sensitive” zones based on what values you hold in your life.
Our mind’s ability to invent fake chains of events of what could happen and catastrophise is unparalleled. A small imagined risk can be blown out of proportion, and because you are the inside-man in your own mind you can convince yourself of almost anything.
Because you are the inside-man in your own mind you can convince yourself of almost anything.
You know your own weakness
- If you value your partner most, you may get great anxiety over the thought of cooking them dinner.
- If you value your job most, you may get great anxiety over giving that presentation to the senior partners.
Both are an opportunity to do something good for your goals and values, but we follow them down the rabbit hole into despair.
A good thing into a bad one (a short story):
- You promise to cook dinner for your moderately new partner.
- You end up burning dinner
- This reminds your partner you can’t cook well
- They question why they would be with someone so incompetent
- They realise they’re better off without you
- They leave you to be with that annoying bartender they talked to once last time you went out (jealousy is borne of insecurity).
Obviously living this way is exhausting…
Only you can define the reality of your imaginary fears
You control and project whatever scenario you want, because you are playing with the dolls in your mind.
Have you ever been stressed beyond belief to have a difficult conversation with someone and they end up taking it really well? It ends up being barely an inconvenience.
You’re playing with modelled versions of the people, not the real people themselves. We can’t truly predict how they will act. We just hope to approximate it as best we can. Read my article about that for more.
In your mind: The only way to guarantee you don’t lose, is to not play.
But in reality: Choosing to not play is the only way to ensure you don’t win. Losing is the status quo.
Fear is a gift that has kept humanity going for millennia, we need to learn to listen to it instead of run from it. Then we can turn the fear into a radar to find and solve the problems we will face in the future.
It’s a signal, not a command.
Process, not repress.