Fear can feel illogical—we scream seeing a spider smaller than our fingernail, or jump hearing a creaky floorboard in an old house. Sometimes, what frightens us is far less tangible. Our fear can stem from old memories and personal beliefs, taking hold when we are reminded of traumatic experiences or faced with an unknown future. Regardless of when and how our fear first arrives, fear is a loud voice—often louder than we’d like—and it can control us.
There’s a scientific phenomenon that occurs when we’re faced with extreme danger, like being face-to-face with a wild animal: it’s called the “quiescent point.” It’s when the brain shuts down and renders the body totally limp, even slowing the heart rate and breathing. It is a final attempt at self-preservation: feigned death. Playing possum. The prey lies totally still, completely silent, until the animal skulks away.
A similar game between hunter and hunted is occurring around us. The quiescent point becomes an interesting metaphor for the fear of engaging or investing in difficult subject matter or contentious conversations. Some may decide to avoid the interaction altogether because the context or circumstances feel too daunting or threatening. Say the wrong thing and get pounced upon. It’s safer to say nothing at all. Play possum.
We interviewed four people who have a range of firsthand experience with fear—a professional daredevil, a scholar, a psychiatrist and a paramedic—in our search to better understand how fear impacts our daily lives. Is it a good thing? How does fear shape us? What are some good coping mechanisms? We asked these questions and more to understand how people who have devoted their lives to understanding fear might provide insight to help us all overcome it. How do we stop playing possum?
Here’s what they had to say:
Gabe Trevino, Full-time firefighter and paramedic:
Thoughts: Dealing so closely with births, deaths, self-inflicted injuries and traumatic injuries has definitely made me realize how fragile life really is. While it hasn’t created any more fear, it’s made me less naïve.
I’ve realized a lot of fear is made up in our minds, at least that’s what I believe. I read In a Pit with a Lion on a Snow Day by Mark Batterson last year, which stated, “Psychiatrists posit that we’re born with only two innate fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. That means that every other fear is learned. And more importantly, that means every other fear can be unlearned.”
Advice: Repetition, practice and assurance. Repetition by practicing what you may be fearful of until if becomes second nature and you are no longer are fearful of it. Assurance can be developed by leading by example. Say someone is afraid of heights, they’re more likely to follow someone else’s footsteps after they’ve climbed a ladder, assured that they’ll be safe.
Most Fearless Person He Knows: My dad. He spent the majority of his life in the army. From deployments, to moving from military base to military base, I’ve never seen him with a hint of fear.
Will Gadd, Mountain Sports Athlete:
Thoughts: I used to think my high fear levels were a bad thing. Other people seemed so much better at overcoming fear than me. Then I realized it’s what helps me do risky things safely.I’m brave when I try new ideas, tactics or push out beyond my areas of known competence. That’s where life gets interesting for me. I don’t fight fear. I grab it in a death hug until I understand it and the situation I’m in.
Advice: Don’t battle fear. Listen to it. Walk with it. Live with it. Understand it. That is true courage. Ignoring fear and “conquering” it results in bad outcomes.
Most Fearless Person He Knows: They’re all dead. I don’t want to be fearless, I want to be good.
Shelly Simpson, LICSW, Social Worker
Thoughts: I most often face fear in tandem with patients. This fear could be anything from sharing an emotion to working though trauma. In order to understand the experience, part of me needs to tap into fear and another part of me needs to remain grounded so I can keep my clinical mind. In my career, I have learned that I can function during fear, and not just freeze and feel helpless. I know I have to move through it; stopping in front of fear only makes the fear bigger. I notice my fear and give myself permission to keep moving.
Advice: Don’t wait for fear to go away to be courageous. Fear and courage can both exist at the same time, and usually do. The feelings that follow a courageous act will help dissipate the fear; it is a process and it is so worth it. Also, fear is important, we have it for a biological purpose. Listen to it and figure out what you are fearful of because sometimes this fear might keep you safe and sometimes it might hold you back. If you find fear is holding you back a lot in life, find someone to talk to, like a therapist, friend or mentor.
Most Fearless Person She Knows: No one is fearless, but there are people in my life like my mother who have faced a wall of fear and climbed to the other side for the sake of my brother and I.
Thoughts: The way fear looks is different when privilege is involved. Fear drives people to look for positions that control others. When you begin to walk and speak in your truth, that control is lost. These days, I control my life’s work and the fear is minimal. I often worry about the way people receive my work, but I’ve learned from folks like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde that no matter what I say, people who don’t share my experience will only hear what they want. I’ve learned that I’m often afraid even when I don’t speak, so I just do now. I often worry about my future, but I know one day I will be able to liberate others and that’s what matters.
Advice: Unlearning fear takes just as long as it takes to learn it. I’d start with being kind to yourself and leaning into the fear. Give yourself space to mess up/break down. In the end, fear is the only thing keeping us from being whole.
Most Fearless Person They Know: Beyoncé
Though our interviewees, their paths to their current career and experiences with fear were all very different, there were a few key insights that remained consistent about fear and its place and purpose:
1: Fear won’t go away, it’s part of our biology, our make up and what keeps us alive. Looking at it as a necessary part of life, instead of a hindrance, can change your perception.
2: When facing fear, find the courage to not run the other direction. Embrace the discomfort and attempt to understand it. Over time, if you search for the root of your fear, you’ll be one step closer to moving through it.
3: Bravery is subjective and it’s something we are all capable of. At its root, bravery is simply deciding not to run away.
Hearing about brave people getting comfortable with their fear makes us think 2019 should be the year we all look fear in the face, assess the risk and act. That spider is probably more terrified of us than we are of it. That creaky floorboard is really a sound of comfort–of something well-loved and well-worn. It’s possible that if we can find the courage to stop, look closely and shine a light on what it is that really scares us, we might realize that there was no reason to be afraid to begin with.