Face Your Fear

“The only way out is through.” –Robert Frost

The water was getting cold. I’d been in the shower for 30 minutes and if I didn’t get out soon I’d be late for work. Soon my boss would be sitting at his house ready to get supplies for today’s landscaping job, fuming. I didn’t take this lightly. My father had placed great emphasis on reliability and competence. But I couldn’t leave. Not until I remembered the name of that journeyman the St. Louis Cardinals had recently acquired in a trade. What was his damn name?

It was the summer of 2009. Google existed and there was a sports page in the kitchen, but I had to remember this second baseman’s name for myself. I had to remember it before getting out of the shower, or I’d go to hell.

On the surface you’d have to conclude, I’d lost my freaking mind. I mean believing you’ll go to hell because you can’t recall a baseball player’s name isn’t a far cry from “my dog told me to kill my wife.” Yet, I was as rational as I’d ever been. I knew how insane this notion was. If I was a betting man, I’d have felt pretty comfortable just hopping out of the shower and rolling the dice that such a bold move would not condemn me to eternal damnation. Yet, I couldn’t, or, rather, wouldn’t do it.

I’d later find that the willingness to act despite fear would make these sorts of thoughts a laughable, hard to believe memory. But at that moment, the fear seemed very real.

It hadn’t started out so crazy. My self-imposed paralysis had evolved from more comprehendible compulsive anxieties to these increasingly bizarre mental battles. There was a progression that fed itself with each avoidance, pulling me towards evermore complex psychological creations.

Mark DeRosa! That was it. I flew out the door, dressing in record time and made it to work with minutes to spare.

 “The mind is a house with many rooms.” –Dionekes of Sparta

For years I dealt with a form of of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) known as Pure Obsession, or Pure O. It began when I was 19. At first there was just a general sense of anxiety that I couldn’t shake. Having no background in meditation or psychology, I spent enormous time and energy in my head fighting the anxiety and trying to come up with routines to make it go away. Rather than the ticks and cleaning rituals most commonly associate with OCD, I wrote hundreds of notecards. They’d have lists on them like: “Ignore; Trust Self; Balance; Confidence.” At times the anxiety was manageable and I’d even forget about it, but only briefly. Over time it manifested in increasingly irrational obsessive fears that were magnified with each step I took to logically persuade them away.

We all have random terrifying thoughts, but we see them for the arbitrary mental conjurings that they are and move on. For example, you most certainly have been driving down the interstate going 70 miles per hour, when it occurred to you: at this speed if I pulled the wheel hard in either direction, I’d be sent flipping to my death. It is a terrifying reality that at worst serves as a momentary reminder about the focus required while driving. We think the thought and then turn our attention back to a billion other more interesting and useful thoughts. You’d have no idea how many of these random musings you had unless you began believing that they were going to happen just because they popped in your head.

For me the realization that high speeds required sensitive steering adjustments was accompanied by terror and self-doubt. I was in no way suicidal, but the knowledge of my history with obsessive anxiety led me to not trust myself. I would be ambushed with the panic that at any moment I could be possessed by a one second impulse that had dire consequences. A visceral fear would pull me into full fight mode, where I obsessively combatted the thought trying like mad to convince myself that with 100% certainty there was no way I’d ever be so wreckless. As the internal battle raged, my anxiety levels would increase. On one 10-hour road trip from Ft. Worth to my parents in St. Louis, this anxiety got so bad that I had to pull over at a rest stop to convince myself that I was in control.

“Nothing fixes itself so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.” –Michel de Montaigne

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Like the many-headed hydra of Greek Mythology, it appeared that every time I fought back at the irrational thoughts they’d grow more increasingly bizarre heads. It became a self-feeding cycle with a seemingly infinite number of ridiculous scenarios to fight. A common theme developed where I’d know my fears were insane, yet come to believe that because those fears were conjured in my head, God would make them come true. Thus, I could always make the impossible fear possible by inserting God. For example, while showering before work one morning my mind drifted to the St. Louis Cardinals latest trade. What was his name again? It was a harmless question. But then, my fear-oriented pattern said: “hey, if you don’t think of his name God will send you to hell.”

Full disclosure: I’d had a lot of internal struggle over belief, or, specifically, the lack of belief, in the standard Judeo-Christian concept of God and the risk of being wrong and eternally burning. Eternity is incomprehensibly long. Having touched hot things for milliseconds and experienced the excruciating pain of a burn, I realized how terrifying even a minute of burning would be- much less an eternity. Pascal’s wager banged incessantly around my mind. Could my flawed senses and human logic ever be trusted to ensure that this unimaginable fate was not a real concern? Even at 99.9% certainty, were the costs of being wrong too high? I recount this fear only to give context to how and why these thoughts manifested, not to invite any sort of discussion on religious beliefs.

Once you plant the seed of the supernatural, you can quickly begin applying irrational fears to every arena of life. There were more insane internal battles fought than I care to remember. The specifics are irrelevant, because they were only symptoms of a thought pattern. I’d obsess on every anxiety, convinced that the presence of my unique disorder turned the impossible, or highly unlikely, into possible and required intense combat to preclude my unravelling.

“He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears.” –Marcus Aurelius

I did not so much fear anything as I feared my response to the fear. I feared the damage fear wrought. I believed I would never flip my car on purpose, but I feared that because of my experiences with anxiety the thought held far more power. I assumed I couldn’t shake the thought so I had to stand guard against it. Fear was a disease and I’d been infected. Yet, fighting only fanned the fire.

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You may be picturing a feeble, panicked Shane who spent his free time rocking in the fetal position. On the contrary, outwardly I’d appear to be flourishing. I had a large, strong social circle, I volunteered as a Lacrosse Coach at my old high-school, I loved my studies and sported a 4.0 GPA throughout college. My issues were mostly self-contained, leaving few clues other than the typical growing pains of a young-adult struggling to figure out who he would become.

The experience is truly impossible to understand unless you’ve been through it. I had confidence and conviction. I knew who I was. I knew what was rational. And yet, I spent the majority of every day consumed by internal battles.

If anything kept the hydra from destroying me, it is that I kept acting normal. No thought could become too crippling because I physically acted despite the anxiety. My mind was frequently forced to be busy with activity, whether my studies, coaching, exercise, or socializing. As important as it is not to stigmatize mental health, I look back grateful that I did fight and continue to act. I could not let myself become a docile victim. I’d either overcome the dang thing or live a meaningful life, despite daily battles with this obsessive anxiety pattern. Action kept me striving towards my goals, despite these struggles. It kept me seeking to learn more. The fighting spirit that my father demanded from a young age helped me avoid the traps of an easy pharmaceutical mask and prompted me towards an investigation to uncover the real causes and real solutions.

The reality is that the name OCD or Pure O is arbitrary. It is an anxious pattern that develops in many different ways for many different people. I’ve seen it manifest in others as body dysmorphia, agoraphobia, or, most commonly, as varying severities of chronic anxiety. Everyone has their own unique trigger which sparks an individualized response pattern. At root is our most primal survival mechanism: the fight or flight response.

Fight or Flight

Deeply ingrained in humanity’s most ancient and primordial instincts we have the fight or flight response. In short, we respond to a stress with instantaneous, intensely uncomfortable physiological changes that prompt us to either fight or flee. This is most useful in the wilderness context that characterized over 99% of human history. Imagine you are walking along gathering walnuts and look up to see a panther. It is time to leave. No processing necessary. Flight. Say you have a couple hungry friends and all of you have spears. The tables have turned. Fight. It can even perceive danger in known stimuli, once perceived as harmless. When your jealous tribesman, Cronk, comes running at you with hate in his eyes, you pick up that rock and fight.

In the environment our biology expected, this system is virtually flawless. It is an amazingly adaptable mechanism that even allows for proper responses in unnatural modern situations like when a car swerves into your lane. Swerve. Flee and survive.

However, it never expected our world of traffic jams, inescapable email, and constant stimulation. Immersed in insane levels of sugar, caffeine, inactivity, omnipresent work pressure, social media distraction, and modernity’s constant ceremonial obligations it is no wonder the stress response system goes a little haywire.

 “Fear has its use, but cowardice has none.” –Mahatma Ghandi

Biological fears are not catered for the individual need. Our programming is built from natural reactions that were successful in 51% or more of human history. They are the cumulative best response dictated by millions of years of collective human experience and survival is the only outcome considered.

Even for the mentally-stable this stress response system must be mastered and overcome in specific circumstances. You have a date and find yourself a nervous wreck. The doorbell rings and your hands are shaking. Why? There is no mortal threat. Yet your body is responding as if you are walking up to a lion.

The nervous system can’t distinguish between mentally conjured ruminations and actual danger. We’ve all heard that more people fear public speaking than death. For most, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld put’s it, “if you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.” When you stand in front of a crowd and deliver a message or walk up to that pretty girl and ask her out, you are acting in direct defiance of those most elemental instincts. Because of the imperfection of these necessary automatic reactions, all of human history has required a mastery of self and fear.

The common disorders that arise, today, are simply patterns of response to elevated stress. Most of our actions are predicated on habitual patterns: cue, routine, reward. Your phone dings and you look at it. Your knee itches and you scratch it. Your belly grumbles and you eat. Relationships have habits. Your wife wakes up and you give her a hug and kiss. You walk in from work and your child runs to greet you, then your wife asks how your day was. Beautiful habit.

 “We are all mere bundles of habits.”- William James

The mind is also run on habit patterns that are quickly formed to increase efficiency and reduce mental energy expenditure. A baby giggles and you bend your knees, stick your face in hers, and begin speaking in a bizarre tone that you didn’t realize you possessed. When someone disagrees with you, you may feel the urge to stand your ground. Unbeknownst to most, emotions have a physical response. Some people respond to stress by feeling hot and agitated. This may cue them to breathe deep and go on a walk, or reach for sugar and alcohol. Anger often triggers impatience, narrowed focus, and lost creativity. In my case, any anxious feeling cued a desire to explain irrationality away with logic. Of course raw physical emotion is not logical.

My first breakthrough came from the understanding that I needed to interrupt the thought pattern. Rather than obsessing on thoughts and fighting them, I needed to immerse myself in another task. If my mind was telling me that God would punish disbelief by taking my plane out of the sky, then I needed to start building a workout program. If I feared my ability to speak would vanish mid-presentation, I had to shift my mind to the details of content and transitions. When I could occupy my mind, interrupting the pattern worked very well. However, this approach often turned into anxiously fleeing from the thoughts flustered by their inconvenient arrival. While it was good not to converse with these fears (fight), too often I’d have an anxious thought and panic, feeling as if I had to get away from the thought as fast as possible. More often than not, the more creative anxieties eventually found a way to bait me into hours of obsessing.

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Both fight and flight are methods of avoidance. Rather than allowing a thought to come and go as it pleased and recognizing it as a harmless, I empowered the thoughts by scrambling to respond. In fleeing the inanimate, it grows a larger and scarier shadow. In fighting the imagined foe and trying to push it away, you become exhausted and increasingly exasperated.

 “What you resist persists.” –Carl Jung

What I eventually found was that I had to change my relationship with anxiety. I had to find a way to perceive this physiological cue without feeling compelled to respond. These were only thoughts, after all. They had no power to do actual harm. If they were so eager to keep dropping by, why not just invite them in to stay a while. It turns out the best way to treat anxiety disorders is to stop running from, or fighting fears and, instead, seek them out.

Exposure Therapy, a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, is the most successful, well documented treatment for anxiety disorders—everything from crippling OCD, to panic disorders, agoraphobia, body dysmorphia, and PTSD. Some people build up to facing fears incrementally, while others are quickly immersed in their scariest possible scenario. Some fears are concrete and able to be physically confronted, while others require imagery and “imaginal exposure.” Treatment is individualized based on the type of fear, but the principles are consistent. Get comfortable with your fear.

As fears are confronted there are predictable patterns of improvement. According to the America Psychological Association, exposure therapy works by:

  • Habituation: Over time, people find that their reactions to feared objects or situations decrease.

  • Extinction: Exposure can help weaken previously learned associations between feared objects, activities or situations and bad outcomes.

  • Self-efficacy: Exposure can help show the client that he/she is capable of confronting his/her fears and can manage the feelings of anxiety.

  • Emotional processing: During exposure, the client can learn to attach new, more realistic beliefs about feared objects, activities or situations, and can become more comfortable with the experience of fear.

 Approach to the Inmost Cave

 “Everyone rushes elsewhere and into the future, because no one wants to face one’s own inner self.” –Michel de Montaigne

The principles of exposure therapy are not reserved for those who experience anxiety related disorders. These are at the root of every human’s path to emotional growth and discovery of purpose. All of us have something calling us to become a greater version of ourselves. These may be drowned out by numbing mechanisms and the incessant noise of modern life, but if you pay attention, you’ll find that call to your inmost cave. Our journey to confront fear is antecedent to a meaningful life. This is a consistent theme in the human experience.

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For a fulfilled life we must determine what we’d fight for and become capable of meeting our own expectations. We must become the hero of our own story. Part of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey archetype, the formula he discovered in almost every hero’s tale throughout time, is “The Approach to the Inmost Cave” and the subsequent, “Ordeal.” No one can reach their potential unless they listen to life’s feedback and confront the call to their greatest fears. This is the only path to personal transformation. Until fears are confronted, we remain a permanently less mature version, handcuffed by more infantile orientations.

We should all be so lucky as to have an all-encompassing mental disorder pull us to the path of personal discovery, growth, and purpose. To some degree, we all do. Whether it is a proclivity for stress, anger, jealousy, impatience, indulgence, or addiction, we all are born immersed in a pathology of self-destruction pulling us towards self-mastery and rebirth. We all have something prompting us to greater self-discovery. It is essential to the human condition.

Stoic philosophy hinges upon the concept of “oikeiosis,” roughly meaning our natural orientation. In their view, each living thing has a disposition assigned to it by nature. For every living thing, from trees to lions, this oikeiosis is simply self-preservation—survival. Humans are the exception.

 “No man is free who is not master of himself.” –Epictetus

Other than humans, all species are exclusively driven by the four natural inclinations: fighting, feeding, fleeing, and, uhh… pro-creation. While these are also innate to humans, we have a greater oikeiosis. Humans have the ability to reason, benefit from collective cognition, and determine a code of ethics that allows us to make choices based on something other than instinct. We can determine a purpose and master emotions in pursuit of those ends. The stoics believed humans must honor their greater oikeiosis by mastering themselves. To live only according to natural instincts was to be no different than cow perpetually chewing cud, or the mosquito buzzing from person to person. For humans, our natural orientation demands that we become greater than our impulses, particularly in the modern environment.

Andreia is one of Stoicism’s four noble virtues. It is most commonly interpreted as a sense of courage, mastery of fear, and an inclination to act nobly in accordance with our values, especially in the face of danger. When marines stormed the beaches of Normandy running towards the hailstorm of gunfire, they acted in direct defiance of nature’s dictates. They had cultivated such immense power that they could override the cataclysm of fear pulsing through their veins in pursuit of a cause greater than themselves. Likewise, Miep Gies displayed another form of andreia, hiding the Jewish Frank family for two years in Nazi occupied Amsterdam. Her moral courage threatened self-preservation and defied social pressure.

 “All young men thirst for a real existence, for an object, for something great and good which they shall do with all their heart.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Our own journey may not be as perilous, but the truth remains: over and over we must be re-born through trial or live as a limited shell of ourselves. Every contributing, autonomous person becomes so by acting despite fear and remain empowered through consistent exposure.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of our rampant Social Justice Warrior movement, we are not entitled to “safe spaces.” In fact, these are fertile grounds from which neuroses proliferate. An entitlement to be coddled and avoid discomfort precludes refinement while ensuring a brittle, limited existence. Absolute security is brutally dull and uninspiring. Furthermore, security is never guaranteed. Disaster, disease, and chaos are inherent in life. Even if you somehow escape unhindered, we all have to face the certainty of death. That real, terrifying reality ensures we all are prompted to the sort of self-discovery that infuses our life with more life.

Which brings me to today’s question (or questions) of the week:

What feedback is calling you to bold action? Anxiety? Anger? Resentment? That book that’s burning inside you to be written? What project scares the hell out of you? On your eventual deathbed what actions will have mattered?

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