The Scary Truth About Fear, and How to Take Back Control


This week is Halloween, but last week was full of terrors both large and small:

  • A flight crashing
  • A client rejecting a new business presentation
  • A run in the country cut short by the accidental shot of a hunter
  • A late night car ride with my kids ending in a wreck
  • A headache turning out to be a brain tumor

stress

None of these really happened. But the fear I felt behind the possibility they might happen was all too real.

Like a carnival funhouse mirror, anxiety distorts reality by presenting all the extremes, the terrible things that might be lurking just around the next turn. It usually starts with a toxic question: “What if…?” What if I get sick? What if I fail? What if people don’t like me?

The question takes me into the future where I imagine losing control, not being enough and letting people down. As Montaigne said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes; most of which never happened.”

But even though these terrible misfortunes didn’t actually happen, my body didn’t know the difference. Anxiety may be all in your head, but it works like the most skillfully crafted horror movie, creating an effect the body recognizes as a truly terrifying experience.

In Scared Sick Robin Karr-Morse explains that when we actively maintain stressors in our minds, we signal alarm through our body, commanding a life-saving emergency response. Our autonomic nervous system gets activated with almost no conscious thought of our own part when any perceived threat exists. It sends chemicals throughout the body, “like divisions of an army deployed for war.” Persistent worry produces a chemical warfare that quite literally kills us.

We live in an age of fear. Prescription medication is helpful for many and often necessary. But why are three out of the top five selling prescription drugs in the US treatments for anxiety?

If we allow them to, persistent fears can turn into a kind of ghost story narrative that takes over our lives. What if we don’t make our numbers this month? What if I flub the presentation? What if, what if?

Instead, let’s take control of the narrative by remembering these four points:

1. Letting go makes us stronger. Many of us are addicted to being in control of our lives. The first three steps of The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can help us all by remembering that we are powerless over our addictions, and a Power greater than ourselves cares about us.

2. Worry is a useless distraction. When I’m living in the worry of the future, I’m not engaged in the present. I miss the beauty of my wife, the joy of my kids, the community of awesome colleagues, the purpose of work and the glory of creation.

3. Friendships give perspective. People who care about us despite our own perceived shortcomings remind us we are worthy of love and life. Dear old friends and a group of men did that for me this past week.

4. It’s OK to be ordinary. Brene Brown in Daring Greatly notes that many of us live in a culture that expects us to be great to have any value. We count our “likes” on Facebook, idolize our health and fill our schedules with activities. I wonder if we’d be greater if we gave ourselves permission to be ordinary.

Being so honest about my fears is scary. But it’s scarier to think of contributing further to our culture of anxiety. What’s one way you could reduce your anxiety or the anxiety of those around you this week?

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