10 Warm-Fuzzy Things to Know About Fear

Jaws-SpielbergI recently read Jaimal Yogis’s The Fear Project, a fascinating foray into the nature of fear and how it influences our actions, both in positive and negative ways. If I could summarize the book in one sentence, I would say that through a range of expert interviews, scientific research and personal experience, Yogis’s main message is that like the great white sharks he swam with, fear is much less threatening and nefarious than we would ever believe, as the following points demonstrate.

1. Lie detecting: He interviews neuroscientist and psychologist Rick Hanson, who states that, “Just because there’s that funny feeling in your belly doesn’t mean that there’s any threat. Our internal signals are pretty much bullshitting us all day long.”

2. Memories: Beat anxiety by recalling memories of times when you felt strong in order to solidify a positive neural network.  Yogis summarizes Hanson’s work by stating that, “What makes people fearful is a combination of the appraisal of the world and an appraisal of their own capacities. So, if on a zero-to-ten scale, you appraise your capacities as a two, and the issue in the world is a three, you’re going to be kind of scared. Whereas if you appraise your capacity as a seven or eight and this thing, broadly defined, in life coming at you is a three, all right, you might be a little nervous about it, you’re on your guard, but you’re not going to freak out.”

3. Optimism: Yogis interviews his friend, top ranked MMA fighter Urijah Faber, who is a proponent of focusing on the good. In Faber’s words: “So much of it is the power of the mind and how you perceive things. An optimist, even when life beats you up, you find something good that you did. I have a real ability to focus on the good thing.”

4. It’s all in the mind: Yogis, something if a Buddhist himself, brings in the Buddha’s perspective. Thoughts, emotions, perceptions exist in the mind rather than existing outside of us in a concrete way. Fear, therefore, is not something that exists out there. It’s like a wave in the mind, rising and breaking. Its impermanence forces us to question its substance and realize that, oh wait, it doesn’t have any.

5. Ninja training: The author’s wife Amy grew up in a family of high powered lawyers – great stress models, apparently. According to Yogis, She seeks out obstacles, knowing that’s what makes her grow, what makes life exciting. And if she doesn’t feel like she can handle something, she trains like a ninja. Whenever she has a big board meeting or a speech about something she doesn’t understand, it’s almost as if she goes into a trance and emerges calm.”

6. Making lists: Yogis consults a top sports psychologist who advocates writing down a list of fears and crossing off the fears you have no control over (because there’s no point worrying about them). He writes that, “For the fears I did have some control over, I would script out an action plan for each one. Not only would this improve my training [to surf at an incredibly dangerous spot], it would remind me that I’d covered all my bases and would keep me from overthinking what my body already knew how to do.”

7. Our plastic selves: As Yogis writes: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that nature has selected a whole variety of traits for us – some good, some bad, and some a combination of the two. But the brain and the mind and the body have more plasticity than we ever imagined. We are constantly evolving. We learn from events, from one another, from our own emphases and awarenesses. A single thought changes the very structure of our brains. Think about that for a moment. A single thought moves matter. And that’s a good thing if we use that malleability wisely. We can take this biological mess of wild impulses, hormones, ferocious emotions, and sharp intellect that we’re saddled with and do something worthwhile – maybe something beautiful.”

8. Fear, death and love, in Yogis’s words: “And it’s love that allows us to move, to act, even in the midst of fear. We’re all different. But maybe the point is, if you start to understand what is driving you, the script that has been written into your genes and your collection of memories, you can begin to mold your life a bit more. It will be scary, but every stressor, every fear, is really just a sign that those boundaries are stretching. I think we have to keep confronting our fears and keep telling one another the stories that come from doing that. Stories mold our brains, our selves, our future. So we have to choose our stories wisely: the ones we write, the ones we consume.”

9. Fear transforms: “Tensing won’t help us perform better, at least not in high doses. But it can help us prepare better, which will help us relax and have faith when it’s go time. If we freeze, and let fear simply spin our internal wheels, we’ll stagnate. But if we harness fear as motivation to prepare, invent, train – one of its true purposes – then the fear transforms from villain to hero.”

10. The final word: “If we can understand fear rather than demonize it, reframe fear as a natural part of our biology rather than avoiding and repressing it, stretch our comfort zones just a little every day, and walk peacefully and courageously into those scary memories of embarrassment and trauma, we will gradually learn to transform fear into focus and compassionate action, and our sons’ and daughters’ world can be better than the one we live in. Will we collectively freeze, fight and stagnate? Or will we learn and act?

Heroine Worship

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

One woman who has been a big inspiration to me, especially in the height of my idealism in my mid-20s is writer and war correspondent Janine di Giovanni. In fact, I was kind of in awe of her in an almost creepy way – reading everything she wrote and following the turbulent journey of her life online and in print as if we were related.

At the time, I thought what she did was the coolest and most important job in the world (well, maybe except for being a doctor who can save lives). She went into wars all over the world for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and reported from the front lines for the world’s most respected newspapers. I was enamored by her courage and bravery. I agreed with her wholeheartedly when in one of her books on the wars she covered, she wrote about a life changing moment, when, as a young, green reporter in Israel, an Israeli lawyer defending Palestinians told her to “go everywhere, write everything, and give me a brief, a blueprint for life; if you have the chance to give a voice to people who do not have a voice…then you have an obligation.”

She inspired me to start writing and one day, I found myself in a very lucky position as a web reporter for an NGO. I was able to travel to twenty countries around the world reporting on a range of different issues focusing on human rights. Although I never saw the dead bodies or had to find shelter from flying bullets and falling bombs like she did, I saw enough to know that the world is one very fucked up place.

The event that has always stuck in my mind is when I visited Malta. We went to a detention center where refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in north Africa had accidentally landed on route to Europe, usually Italy. I hope to revisit this experience in more depth in another post. For now, I just want to say that I was shocked by what had happened to these men – they were being held against their will with absolutely nothing to do all day and had to find ways to pass the time. I saw the loss of dignity they had endured- these tall, strong, capable men were in limbo and weren’t allowed to work legally, and had very little self-determination. The Maltese government were punishing them and would not send them back to Africa, nor forward to Italy. In the meantime, they descended into depression, slowly wasting away.

Then I wrote a little article about it, raised a little bit of awareness but essentially, nothing changed. And really, I couldn’t expect it to. Still, it was a pivotal moment for me. And of course, reality set in, where I realized I did not have even one-tenth of the balls needed to do this on a regular basis, to bear witness to so much pointless suffering. There was also the princess factor – was I really going to go ten days without brushing my teeth, or live without a flushing toilet and no running water like she did? Or being in freezing temperatures without heat in Eastern Europe sleeping on a floor? How about not showering for a week and risking getting shot at, tortured, imprisoned and gang-raped? No thanks.

And now, years later, I have again delved into di Giovanni’s life as I recently discovered she had written a memoir about the disintegration of her marriage to another war correspondent – a French cameraman.

In this book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she writes very eloquently and poignantly about how all of her and her husband’s harrowing experiences of war catch up with them as they have a baby and start a new life as a married couple in Paris.

One reason this book is so compelling is that she is brutally honest about the messy, unflattering aspects of herself and her marriage. She weaves the narrative back into her personal and professional past (although she never really separates the two) and relives some of her most traumatic experiences and then moves back seamlessly to her domestic life, reflecting on how these experiences shaped and often, harmed her. In one instance, when she first holds her son in her arms after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy and birth, she asks the doctor if her baby is dead.

She attributes being able to write about her experiences as one way that she didn’t descend into madness and suicide like many of her colleagues who covered the same wars as her – in Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and countless others. Her husband, however, wasn’t so lucky.

Bruno is portrayed in her memoir as a rugged, dashing and charismatic figure who protects his wife with his seemingly indomitable courage, a warrior who fights until the bitter end – always the last man standing – and thrives on excitement, danger and adrenalin. Slowly, their marriage erodes as it becomes apparent he is falling victim to PTSD and alcoholism. Eventually, he enters rehab and AA, becomes sober and saves his own life. However, di Giovanni finds that they have both changed too much – the wildness, turbulence, chaos and passion has gone from their marriage and they separate, although remain close and share the parenting of their only son.

I recently listened to an interview with the author on the radio talk about her work. She was being interviewed by her long-time friend and former war correspondent, a Canadian woman, who said, at one point during the interview (I am paraphrasing here), “You know, I thought you had it all. You did what I couldn’t – I left that work because I couldn’t handle it. But you thrived with the dangerous, globe-trotting journalism job, the husband, the baby, the beautiful apartment in Paris – it was portrayed as an enviable life. I coveted it.”

To which di Giovanni replied that she kept up appearances and didn’t talk to anyone about her own suffering because of how all the tragedy that her family experienced as she was growing up was swept aside. Nobody talked about her dying or dead siblings, the drug addiction or other sorrows that plagued her upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey. “But there was so much mystery. We never talked about cousins who disappeared and died, about the problems in our own home: the bags of dope stashed in the cellar; the boys’ grades slipping or the fact they stopped playing sports and spent more time with bongs…We never talked about growing up, about what would happen when I left the painted black front gate or our home and went into the real world,” she writes.

di Giovanni is not looking for sympathy or pity as she lays her life bare. As a journalist of the highest calibre, she is committed to truth and portraying reality in the most raw and honest way she knows how.

Partway through her narrative, as she is coming to terms with her husband’s addiction and the unraveling of their ‘perfect’ life together, she asks the reader these pertinent questions: “Why do we deny ourselves reality? When is the right time to suddenly see the truth?” Indeed.

 

 

 

 

Only the Resilient

rainThe holiday season can be hard on expats – away from close friends, family and the familiar rituals and atmosphere that are comforting and exciting. For me, this time of year is always a time of reflection. And this year, the lesson for me has been RESILIENCE.

While I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs over the past year (actually, mostly just downs), I have been thinking about some of my close friends and the really hard times they have faced, not just this year, but throughout their twenties. The reason I spent so much time thinking about this is that I found a sense of hope, comfort and admiration in their ability to overcome their struggles – what didn’t kill them, made them stronger, as the cliché goes.

They have experienced the deaths of loved ones (parents, partners, friends), mental breakdowns, physical disease, debilitating accidents, abuse, miscarriage, divorce, job loss, betrayal, and the list goes on….I am in awe of their ability to get up and carry on.

Of course, in my own life, I have not been exempt from suffering: setbacks, disappointment, death, defeat, heartbreak, illness, grief, rejection and so many other traumatic events, both large and small.

Through experiencing and witnessing such events, the role of resilience cannot be underestimated. In my quest to figure out how to better inoculate myself against all the terrible things that happen to us, I started paying attention to resilience research.

While I’m not as deluded or naïve to believe that I can stop bad things from happening, I know that there are tools and strategies we can use to better weather the storm and not drown.

One prominent researcher in this area is Martin Seligman. I’ve been a fan ever since my friend recommended I read his groundbreaking work in the area of learned optimism: people who don’t give up have a tendency of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable. He has undertaken research in the area of post-traumatic growth – which is simply the idea that people grow in positive ways from hardship. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Seligman talks about this research:

doorsExtremely bad events lead to personal and moral dilemmas. And they’re existential crises in which you have to make decisions. And therefore, we talk about it as a fork in the road. One of the most interesting things about depression, which is the big, big component of post traumatic stress disorder, it is an emotion that tells you to detach from goals you had. That they’re unreachable. And that creates a fork in the road. It makes you ask the question, what other things might I do? What doors might open for me?

And one of the important things about knowing about post traumatic growth and resilience is when those doors open for you, if you are paralyzed by the depression, by the anxiety…,you’re not going to walk through those doors. You’re not going to take advantage of them. But knowing that typically, people who suffer very bad events have new doors open for them and that it’s important to be prepared to walk through them.

I like the analogy he uses and he raises an important point about believing that those doors will open and enabling ourselves to walk through them. Resilience is key to this process, and luckily for us mere mortals, it is a muscle that we can build and develop through practice of a range of techniques and strategies.

When my resilience (which is, admittedly, not that strong) was tested in a big way about a year ago, the advice I received was to ‘take a day off, connect with your friends and family, and be kind to yourself.’ These were all helpful strategies in the short-term. But what about the long-term? How could I ensure I wouldn’t fall apart in the same way next time something bad inevitably happened?

I listened to an interview with innovator Andrew Zolli about how to bolster our resilience. He relays fascinating research about our beliefs: in a nutshell, if you believe the world is a meaningful place, that you have agency, that your actions have consequences and that successes and failures are also placed in your life to teach you something, then you have a greater chance of being resilient in the face of potentially traumatic events. Therefore, spiritual and religious worldviews have endured because they are positively adaptive by being advantageous to us in moments of crisis. I think this means that I should get rid of my nihilistic tendencies.

Also, he talked about habits of mind and referred to the slew of research that is being done on the monk population. Neuroscientists are studying neuroplasticity and how regular meditation can help us as a tool in stressful situations, allowing us to better regulate our emotions and encouraging the mind to focus on optimism and hope.

Psychologist Karen Reivich, author of The Resilience Factor, has also written on how to increase resilience. Strategies include:

Building awareness by listening to our internal radio station and what we say to ourselves in the heat of the moment – ask ourselves, what would be a more positive, optimistic way to look at this?

Ask: where do I have control? What can I do now to positively affect the situation?

mountainsPut things in perspective (don’t catastrophize by making Himalayas out of mountains).

Have some ‘go to’ coping strategies that draw on your strengths (e.g. the ability to ‘hunker down’ and get things done, using humour, playfulness etc.).

Probably the most important strategy is having the ability to ask for help and having a good social network of people that you can rely on.

Other pearls of wisdom that have been imparted to me are: learn from your mistakes – don’t allow history to repeat itself. Instead of being hard on yourself and beating yourself up, forgive yourself. Don’t blame yourself for everything that went wrong. Focus on what you learned from the experience and how you can keep from making the same mistake again.

So, if we can remain resilient in the face of setbacks and suffering, there are opportunities for growth, as long as we can get ourselves through those doors.