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Personal essay: “On fear”

Biologically speaking fear is something good. It is our body and our brains warning us that something is amiss, that we must be prepared to either fight or flee, which are the most basic of responses. It sets off cascades of responses in our bodies, causing elevated heart beat and sharpens our senses, tapping into the primitive lizard brain. Fear is one of those things which kept our species alive and helped us adapt and thrive over the thousands of years Homo sapiens have lived on this planet.

But the fact is that there can be too much of a good thing.

See, our brains are not as smart as it thinks it is. Especially in our modern world, when it is no longer a matter of crawling out of our den, hunting our dinner, cooking, eating it, finding a mate to create offspring with and then make sure everything is safe before we retreat into our dens again. We have no need to fear predators stalking in the night and many of us who live in the western world don’t have to fear starvation or exposure to the elements either (that there are those in our part of the world who do face these things is a topic for another essay). I think it might be this that causes the brains of some of us to go a little crazy from boredom.

I have suffered from anxiety since before I could look it up online and find out what it was. A pervasive, niggling worry has always existed at the back of my head even when I was little, when I thought every stomach ache was a potential case of appendicitis, every mysterious response of my body something alarming. For a long time I dealt with my hypochondria by continuously consulting my mother, who is a trained nursing assistant. She usually had something to say which alleviated my worries.

But as I got older and the pressures of life increased, thus my brain discovered new ways to instill fear in me, from failing exams, do forgetting my keys, my bus pass, forgetting to pay a bill, being late for a meeting, forgetting when my period started…You name it.

As with someone who must endure a difficult situation, so does a person with anxiety adapt to satisfy their off kilter brain. I learned to double check where all my things were, even if that ate up chunks of time, I made check lists and found ways to mentally reassure myself there was nothing forgotten that I had to be concerned about. Fear had become a two-edged weapon, not just protecting me against real concerns, such as whether I had turned on the stove or closed the door to my balcony, but it also created a fear in me of anything new and out of the ordinary, things I had not yet created a routine for how to deal with. After long years in school I found myself in a mentally unsatisfying job, living in an unsatisfying apartment, but somehow I remained there, because though unpleasant, it was familiar and I had learned how to cope with it, so I could keep the recurring fears at bay.

All things have a breaking point though, and when I realized my adaptive responses were no longer enough to keep me sane and mentally stable, I was forced to remove myself from the situation, a terrifying situation that was still better than the status quo which had been my life for many years. Fear had for once become a weapon I could use to change things, to force myself away and with that change came time for reflection and insight into my own psyche and how I worked, how my brain worked. For the first time I saw the fears that controlled me and I looked them in the eye. I decided they would not defeat me or control me to the extent they had before. My brain was stupid and I would be attentive to when it was trying to affect me in a negative way which made little sense.

On the surface, some things remain the same for me, my job is the same, my fears and anxieties still rise to the surface, but now I can see them for what they are and know that some emotional states are caused by something my brain wants me to fear. I know I will always feel rotten before I try something new, like go on a trip, meet new people, or attend a live show with one of my brothers. But I am also aware that once I have reached my destination, once I am chatting with a person I have only talked to online for years, once I am sitting there in a dimly lit theater my gut will unclench and my heart will stop beating so fast, the anxiety will dissolve into nothing and contentment will take its place.

I endure those unpleasant feelings, because I know they will be worth it, as they imply that I am about to experience something new and fun.

As the man on the stage proclaimed in his closing statement; don’t carry your fears with you all the time, put them aside from time to time. So, I try to pack up my anxieties in a bag, leave them under my bed, or stuff them in a cupboard, because if your fears force you into a prison of your own making, if they prevent your from trying out new things in life…Why, that will make your life a little poorer, with fewer friends, and fewer good memories to look back on in your old age.

And we only have this one life to live, so we should make the most of it.

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