Dealing With Fear — Part 1: Everyday Life

The subject of fear came up in the comments on a recent post, one writer lamenting the life-freezing effects of it. Because the writer’s words felt soooo familiar, I both winced and chuckled. Winced because I’ve been there, chuckled because once again I realized that I’m not the only one who feels this sort of thing.

Quoting Richard Nixon, “Let me just say this about that …”

(I also addressed the subject of fear in another recent post The Most Dangerous Thing You Can Do. )


I took some pictures of a young friend of mine bridge-jumping, just a month or so back. You can click over to see them if you like. It’s a sequence of pics showing him jumping from the top of a 65-foot-high railroad trestle into a river.

(In case this is highly illegal, none of this ever happened. I have no idea where that bridge is, it wasn’t me who took the pictures, and the guy in the pics is a complete stranger. And I believe it happened in Mexico, or maybe Tierra del Fuego.)

I find it so amazing that anybody can even consider such a thing. And for me to photograph the sequence, he had to jump twice. I chose two vantage points to capture the complete feel of the event, one down on the river bank, the other below him on the bridge itself.

Which brought an interesting problem into the thing. Railroad trestles aren’t really built for people to walk out on. One feature of this one was that the … well, call it the floor of the thing, is open. For the whole span of the bridge, there’s one floorboard, and then a wide gap, and then another floorboard, and then another huge gap. Which means, walking on it, you can see through to the river below. And not just a little bit, but a LOT. To me it seemed there was more open space under my feet than bridge.

I’m deathly afraid of heights. Even scenes in movies, anything that has someone hanging over a canyon or looking over the edge of a high-placed balcony, can give me a swoony feeling, forcing me to look away.

So whereas he strode out there with his bridge-jumping posse and began monkeying fearlessly up the slanted steel beams of the thing to the top, I could barely bring myself to walk out onto the flat part of it. Took me several minutes to manage it, while he and his friends waited for me to get into position. Taking one petrified step at a time, breathing fast and shallow, forcing myself to move forward and ignore the yawning gulf below me because I wanted these pictures.

And then — fuck me! — he jumped. It gives me a fluttery feeling, just remembering it. I have no idea how people can do such things.

From the professional side of fear, learning about it and helping people deal with it, I’m an absolute novice. I would never presume to lecture someone on it. (“Hey, all you have to do it just go for it, dude!” —Heard that about a thousand times.)

But from the personal side of it, feeling it, learning to live with it, I think I approach expert level.

Can’t tell you how often I’ve been out for a lark with friends — headed up to a favorite swimming hole, gone to the beach, clambering around on rocks in the mountains, or just out for drinks, dancing, karaoke — and ended up the focus of their bemused stares, that I wouldn’t keep up with them on some of this stuff.

“C’mon, try it. Just one song. Hey, you sing all the time by yourself, all you have to do is step up on stage and do the same exact thing. Look, I’ll hold the mike and start, and you chime in when you feel like it. It’ll be fun! Hell, most of the people here are already drunk off their asses. Nobody’s even gonna notice.”

Yeah. Except … no. Couldn’t do it. Ever.

As I’ve written here before, if I ever pen my autobiography, it’s going to start with the line “I was born afraid.”

I had it from my mom that baby-me liked to watch the goings-on of family gatherings from the safety of his barred playpen. If she took me out, I cried and struggled to be put back. Apparently even my own doting relatives scared me.

And — argh! — that predilection toward fear has followed me into adulthood. It’s like somewhere inside me is a little white bunny convinced that he’s stuck in the middle of a vast plain of short grass, in full daylight, and the entire rest of the world is toothy, rangy predators, galloping happily around out there and about to notice juicy, defenseless me any second.

So the comment about fear really hit home.

And I think it’s germane to what we’re doing here, all us atheists or budding atheists. Because we DO live on that vast plain, and historically we have been stuck in a field of predators. People who would kill us, torture us, burn us, shun us.

How does one deal with that?

First, how do we deal with ordinary, non-atheist-related, fear?

I can only relate my own experience. Like I said, I’m no expert. But for me it boils down to just a few things.

1) I’m okay with the fact that I’m afraid of so much.

It’s okay to be afraid.  Looking at it in an evolutionary sense, there’s probably a natural range of susceptibilities to fear. SOME of us have to be the scaredy cats, so the species can survive when the brave ones all jump off that bridge without checking to see what’s in the water, take all the exciting new drugs as if cheap new replacement brains can be ordered online, sample the hookers in that back street Haitian bawdy house their vacationing buddies told them about, try the cool new stunt of dousing themselves with rubbing alcohol and lighting it on fire before going off the diving board, look down the barrel of the gun or pull the trigger to see if it’s loaded, or go happily off to war to keep the world safe for good American corporations.

Really, fear is probably why the species survived. It’s why we little nebbishly humans, no teeth or claws, are here today.

Some people have good looks, perfect teeth, great heads of hair. I have my fear. It’s a natural trait, perhaps even a gift. I already know I was born this way – for me this is normal, and there is nothing wrong with me.

2) Fear powers foresight.

If you’re one of the fearful, you can imagine all sorts of horrible things happening in even the most normal situation.

Every time I drive over a local bridge, I imagine it collapsing and my truck ending up on the bottom of the river. It’s dark down there, the water is coming in, the door is locked and I can’t see the handle. On the other hand, if that ever does happen, I will instantly know what to do: Scream and keep on screaming until Jesus arrives. (Just kidding.)

I’m always looking ahead for possible dangers. Yes, it’s a little tiring at times, but on the other hand, there have been many times that I’ve saved myself and friends from getting hurt.

My “Wise Old Saying” is: If you could see 5 seconds into the future, you’d never have another accident. And that’s what I try to do. Going-on-60, I’ve never even sprained my ankle. I’ve missed out on broken bones, concussions, emergency room visits, unnecessary stitches – all things my friends got, some of them repeatedly.

I know how to handle knives and guns safely. Because I can see every possible thing that can go wrong. When I have a knife in my hand, I automatically imagine razory vectors extending outward from the blade, and I never allow those vectors to intersect any part of my body. Ditto for guns. Doesn’t matter that “It’s not loaded” – people make mistakes, and  I plan to not be one of the ones who suffer because of it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed being killed while driving or riding a motorcycle, when some other driver did something unexpected and deadly. I don’t even yell at them anymore; I just see to my own safety and keep going.

(And yes, yes, yes, I could have an accident any day, and it would be funny as hell to some of us now that I’ve said all this. It’s still worth it to me to try not to have one.)

3) Fear is intelligent.

Hey, you’re supposed to be afraid of stuff.

Everybody around you is perfectly comfortable with glass beverage containers, right? And what the hell?? What sort of product is so fragile that it breaks when you drop it a mere two or three feet? And then turns into a collection of near-invisible razor-sharp shards strewn randomly across the floor? Possibly in the dark, if you’re in a bar, when your judgement and eyesight is already affected because you’re sucking down the alcohol the thing recently contained? The rest of the world can laugh at me – Hey, they used to make baby bottles out of the stuff! – but to me that’s some shit that’s worth being cautious about.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of bungee jumpers crashing and dying because somebody – an expert! a guy in the business! – forgot to tie off the bungee to the bridge. Or failed to realize that a 55-foot bungee cord is the wrong equipment for a 50 foot bridge jump. Apparently nobody there had brains enough to be afraid that something like that could happen. But if I’d been there, I would have been. I would have checked.

Balcony railings really do sometimes get old and collapse when you lean on them. You really can get your shoelaces, and your fingers, sucked into an escalator. Windows really do sometimes fall out of skyscraper window frames when people bump against them.

Not to mention that going balls-out down a hill on your bike, headed for a homemade ramp and intending to jump 30 feet of asphalt parking lot onto another homemade ramp, seems … well, unwise, to some of us.

The world is full of ski jumpers, cliff climbers, wing-suit flyers and even shark photographers, and I’m happy for them and their triumphs. But I’m not one of those guys. It’s not for me. When I find the things that are for me, I do those things, and never lament missing the dangerous stuff. I can enjoy those other thrills vicariously, or grin as I read about how the shark guy made that one teeny little mistake

Next, or perhaps again:

4) Some level of fear is normal.

For me, it’s this level. When the babies were rolling off the factory floor, this model came with an extra-big hazard sensor system, with the sensitivity turned up to 10 and a vivid, non-stop imagination about possible dangers. A high level of fear is within my normal operating range. I wouldn’t say it’s always wonderful, exactly, but it is normal.

5) You can deal with more than you think.

Some of the fear – maybe not all, but some of it – you can deal with. You can either do stuff anyway, and just live with the fear, or you can overcome the fear. I became a political activist some years back, and discovered that it was okay if certain people disliked me. In fact, it felt sort of good – because I realized I no longer had to be petrified by the slightest hint of disapproval.

There have even been times when I’ve actually been brave. You can think of yourself as a scaredy-cat all you like, but when someone or something you love is threatened, when the insults and indecency rises to a level you just can’t take anymore, you just might find a warrior inside yourself, or a hero. Even little me has been surprised that way more than once.

6) Some of what feels like fear isn’t exactly fear.

Some of it, for me at least, is misinterpreted hypersensitivity. The volume knob on life might be turned up only to 5, but to me it sometimes feels like it’s at 10. The slight frown on the face of a teacher, the exasperation in the voice of a friend, the laughter in the voices of the people already up there at the mike … it’s all mild stuff, on any normal scale. Heck, some people get arrested and beaten up by cops, and apparently end up (eventually) none the worse for it. But to me, when I was a kid at least, the tiniest expressions of disapproval could come across as fearful waves of anger and dislike.

And finally, it’s important to know this:

7) Fear isn’t forever.

There’s lots of stuff you can get used to, so that they no longer make you afraid. I’m comfortable speaking up in public now, something I couldn’t have done in large parts of my earlier life. I don’t mind people getting mad at me as much as I used to. I’ll speak up at injustice and stupidity in ways that I never would when I was a kid.

Some of the fears, stuff that others would label irrational, I’ve worked my way out of. I’ve desensitized myself to them, gradually accustomed myself until each situation felt somewhat comfortable rather than fearful. I may not be able to trot out onto a railroad bridge with blithe unconcern, but I can take a few steps out there. Today, I mean, and if it means something to me. And then take a few more tomorrow, if it still matters.

In the case of social fears, I think it was just that, getting older and more confident in myself, in who and what I was, I no longer gave a shit about what somebody else might say or think about me. Laugh at my cowboy hat, poke fun at my short stature, look sideways at me when I eat my peas with a spoon – my response is an unconcerned shrug. Sometimes I even make jokes about it: “Hey, I’m old. I have every right to be weird.”

I still have some of my silly fears. At this point, I don’t worry about it much. I’ll either get to them or not, but in the meanwhile, there’s still a lot of life to be living. Hey, it’s an ongoing process, and — just like with you — this is an individual journey that I, and nobody else, am on.

And fear or not, every day of it is an adventure.

  • fastlane

    Awesome post. Timely too. I don’t know if you follow motorsports at all, but one of the up and coming stars of MotoGP racing was killed sunday, while racing.

    It’s always a tragedy, but to quote the rider, Marco Simoncelli:
    “To only live 5 minutes to ride bikes like this, is far greater than most people live in an entire life time.”

    Me? I’m planning on getting a track bike next year, after more than 20 years off from roadracing.


  • Lou Doench

    Bravo… As a fellow Acrophobe, I really get your bit about watching movies and getting queezy. And the weird thing for me is that it has actually gotten worse over the years, which has made me really think about how our mind/body dualism is an illusion. There’s something in my body that doesn’t like heights, it has a bigger say in my body’s reaction to heights than anything my conscious mind can muster.

  • anthonyallen

    I’m going try to weigh in.

    It’s like somewhere inside me is a little white bunny convinced that he’s stuck in the middle of a vast plain of short grass, in full daylight, and the entire rest of the world is toothy, rangy predators, galloping happily around out there and about to notice juicy, defenseless me any second.

    That about sums it up, metaphorically speaking. I’m not terribly afraid of heights, or things from the physical world, as a rule, though. I am, however, quite safety-conscious. So, perhaps I am.

    1) I’m okay with the fact that I’m afraid of so much.

    Except I’m not. FSM forbid that I have to ask my boss for anything, even the time of day. What is she says no to something that I really need? Worse, what if she says yes!

    2) Fear powers foresight.
    3) Fear is intelligent.

    As I mentioned, I’m quite safety-conscious, so I’m with you there.

    4) Some level of fear is normal.

    [...] I wouldn’t say it’s always wonderful, exactly, but it is normal.

    I’m having trouble with that concept. Normal, really?

    5) You can deal with more than you think.

    Maybe. Maybe not. For me, it is absolutely not OK for some people to dislike me. I have avoided many social situations, especially ones that involve discussion/debate for this reason. I allowed my last partner to alienate me from my children (their mother and I were split for about 3 years at the time) and even after we broke up, I have still avoided contacting them.
    It’s been nearly an hour since I started writing this, and I’m still agonizing over whether it will be well-received, or even received at all. Edit this, delete that, this can be worded better, etc.
    What if someone ridicules me for a typo, or a grammar error? No, it’s not What if…, it’s more like How am I going to feel when…

    As for the other part, about being brave; I can’t imagine myself being brave. I freeze. When I was in the artillery, I made damn sure I was a good enough signalman to be assigned to regimental command, because if the metal ever met the meat, (it didn’t for me, thank FSM) I would be relatively save at least 12 clicks away.
    In the interests of disclosure, though, I should point out that I did find the courage to finally be on my own, for the first time. Ever. I even moved 5600km, so that I’d be forced to be on my own.

    6) Some of what feels like fear isn’t exactly fear.

    I haven’t quite figured out how to separate the “normal” stuff from the “OMGWTF why is she so pissed off at me?”

    7) Fear isn’t forever.

    Isn’t it? Do you really grow out of it? I’ve got a long way to go, and well, I’ve only got 14,999 days left.

    Thank you, Hank, I think that this is the most that I’ve ever written as a comment. It’s something for me to be proud of.

    (now if I can just hit that “submit” button)
    (30 minutes, and I haven’t pressed it yet… :( )

    • Lauren Ipsum

      AnthonyAllen, I liked what you wrote. :)

    • Hank Fox

      Fantastic! Great comment! —And I hope you won’t mind, but the reply I wrote to you ended up being so long, I decided to make it a post all its own.

    • judykomorita

      Anthony Allen said:
      “It’s been nearly an hour since I started writing this, and I’m still agonizing over whether it will be well-received, or even received at all. Edit this, delete that, this can be worded better, etc.”

      This is the life of an HSP. We imagine *in detail*, and often in negative. Unfortunately, this trait doesn’t seem to go away, so we create coping skills to deal with it. Try imagining in the positive, too. Did you think, when you hit Submit, that Hank would take your comment and make a whole new post on it? What an honor!

      “What if someone ridicules me for a typo, or a grammar error? No, it’s not What if…, it’s more like How am I going to feel when…”

      One of the things that helps me with this is “What is the worst thing that can happen if (X) doesn’t like me? Or says something hurtful?”

      We cannot control what others say to us. We can scarcely even control whether it hurts or not. But we can control how we deal with it, how we respond. We can, with some hard work, control how long we agonize over it. It hurts like a sumbitch, but life does that to us. The alternative is not living, just existing.

      “As for the other part, about being brave; I can’t imagine myself being brave. I freeze.”

      That is normal, especially for an HSP! We have to be trained to react in any other way. (That’s what the military is for, after all.) And don’t forget, please, that courage/bravery isn’t not feeling fear. It’s feeling the fear and managing to take that step anyway. (Whole books on that subject exist, AAMOF.)

      It’s hard for us to trust ourselves when all our lives we’ve been diagnosed as defective. But taking those hard steps, and gently expanding our comfort zones do help – little by very little.

      “In the interests of disclosure, though, I should point out that I did find the courage to finally be on my own, for the first time. Ever. I even moved 5600km, so that I’d be forced to be on my own.”

      And THAT is bravery, AnthonyAllen. THAT is courage.

      6) Some of what feels like fear isn’t exactly fear.

      I haven’t quite figured out how to separate the “normal” stuff from the “OMGWTF why is she so pissed off at me?”

      If I may offer this, I interpreted Hank’s statement in a slightly different way. What do we feel when we fear? Heart racing, shaking hands, fuzzy brain, quick skipping thoughts. But those same symptoms appear in other situations. Those symptoms, IIRC, are a side effect of adrenaline. For instance, when we see a beautiful/handsome person that we desire, we may get that same rush of adrenaline. We feel those same symptoms, and since we *associate* those symptoms with fear, we assume we are being fearful — when we may not be.

      It helps, if at all possible, to use our high-distinction brains to step back and analyze what is going on. If not at the moment, then afterwards, when we can learn from it.

      Sorry this is so long. I hope I haven’t just confused the issues.

      • anthonyallen

        Thank you, judy.

        Just wanted to let you know that I addressed some of what you said in the side note thread.


    • OleBiscuit

      Well said anthonyallen. I enjoyed reading your comment.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    Like I put in another post in another thread on another blog, I’ve got the same kind of crazy anxiety you talk about with the bridge. Every major decision, every step of my life is prefaced by a conversation in my mind that’s detailing every possible way that things can go wrong. It’s why I’m currently still muddling over whether to talk to a gender counselor about my gender identity issues – for the last 18 months.

    Fear is scary, but I’m learning to deal with it slowly.

  • judykomorita

    I had to find a way to sign in to respond. You’re writing my life, Hank!

    I am a 56-year-old woman, and have been a scared bunny rabbit forever. My mother would attest to it if she were still alive. It doesn’t prevent me from living, but I feel like it keeps me from living with gusto.

    Your points are valid. It *is* okay to be born on the high end of the fear/sensitivity scale. We can’t help it – it’s biologically determined. It *does* make us look into the future for hazards others won’t look at. We *can* overcome it sometimes, but it is a dreadful, wearying task. What others shrug off in moments can take us hours, days, or weeks to get over.

    Your metaphor of the volume of life being turned up is exactly what I have used to describe my hypersensitivity. What other people hear as a whisper, we hear as a normal voice. What others hear as a normal voice, to us is a shout. What others hear as a shout (someone angry at us) is a deafening cacophony that becomes *physically* painful for us to listen to.

    No one who wasn’t born hypersensitive can understand how bad it is.

    It can make us conflict-avoidant to the extreme. Pretty difficult to come out of the closet with that particular trait.

    Thank you, Hank, for writing this piece. I hope that you find someone for your life who is worthy of your talents, your sensitivity, and your wisdom.

    • Hank Fox

      And judy, I hope YOU find that some part of hypersensitivity is a gift. Something useful and unique that lots of people around you don’t get to have.

      Yes, you get to see tiny nuances on people’s faces that they’re not even aware they’re sending. But on the other hand, you get to see tiny nuances on people’s faces that they’re not even aware they’re sending.

      If it was vision, it would be like seeing a little bit more of the visible spectrum than others can see, and finding it beautiful. If it was smell, it would be like picking up olfactory nuances that other people miss … to their loss. If it was hearing, it would be like picking up subtle grace notes in a symphony, or the shivery-delightful music of distant songbirds, things the rest of the audience never hears.

      Some part of being like this can indeed be a “dreadful, wearying task.” But it can also be, if you look at it the right way, glorious.

      Sometimes in life, the right tool is a sledgehammer. But in some situations, the right tool is a feather. And maybe the people who are most qualified to wield the feathers are US.

      This is how we are, and it’s GOOD.

      • judykomorita

        LOL on the “tiny nuances.” And those tiny nuances can cause major effects in us – often to the bewilderment of those displaying the nuances; they don’t know that they are.

        On vision/smell/hearing – that was poetry, thank you.
        Our ability to discern many more gradations in our senses is definitely a gift. And it deserves to be appreciated as such.

        You’re right, hypersensitivity can be glorious as well as painful. Best, though, if there are people in our lives who also sense and appreciate it. Like a beautiful sunset – it’s good to view alone, but better if shared.

        I’ve been chastised more than once for geeking too far into the details of colors, music, textures. It frustrates me, but I feel sorry for those who can’t sense those details.

        Here’s to HSPs, feather-wielders, all!

  • Tom Clark

    Awesome. Now can you write one on limerence?

  • Pingback: Dealing With Fear: Side Note | Blue Collar Atheist

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  • Assassin Actual

    Fear is the mindkiller.

    I would also guess that fear is realitive to what you experiance in your life. Any fear-causing event will decrease in scaryness provided you come through it ok. Bullets and rockets don’t scare me anymore because I experiance them daily.

    Going on the dancefloor, that still scares the pants off me.

  • ericthered

    Thank you for the post. I have for years thought of my self as a Highly Sensitive Person, largely due to some self-help book I read years ago. I think I have always viewed myself as just terminally shy, lol. I began studying martial arts over 20 years ago to help with confidence/self-esteem. It seemed to work in many ways mostly by giving me ways to cope with uncomfortable situations. I never really helped solve the underlying anxiety, though.

    My realizations about this came to ahead recently when I decided to try learning how to dance. If I was going to have a social life, meet women, etc, I was going to have to “get out there.” Talk about going way out of my comfort zone. Like others have said, things have gotten easier with familiarity, but it is still a challenge.

    I ended up looking into mental health approaches, counseling/meds. The MH community would view my state as a general/social anxiety disorder (and it certainly fits the medical description). While I agree that it is important to be o.k. with my anxieties, I agree that fear has its uses (it has for me),but if it prevents one from possibly enjoying things that are really should be fun, like karaoke (I’m with Hank on this one – it’s not going to happen, lol), or dancing, then maybe therapy and medication have a role. As it turns out, I have discontinued the professional route for now. One of the philosophies we have in my martial arts school is that of the “iron ox function.” An iron ox may not be very fast, but not much will stop it, or me. Thanks for the opportunity to share my experiences.