Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

Why We Do What We Do

Monday, May 2, 2016

Imagine for a moment you are hiking through the woods. Far from home, your only friends are a pair of hiking boots, a walking stick, and a bottle of water. You take a breath of the fresh forest air, look up at the sun as it shines through the leaves and... what was that? To one side you hear a rustle in the bushes. Something is there! Something big. Your breathing and heart rate quicken, your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, and you begin to sweat.1 A bear rises before you. You freeze in place. You are afraid.
Fear is a temporary reaction to an immediate threat (like a bear), while anxiety is an anticipatory reaction to a future threat (like going out in public).2 We can rarely talk or reason away fear, just as we can rarely talk or reason away anxiety. There is no telling someone with anxiety to simply “get over it.” That’s an unfair request and expectation. Like other bodily functions, resolving it often requires medication, behavioral changes, or simply time.
Fear and anxiety are fairly unique emotions: They intensify whatever one is feeling at the time.3 This is one possible explanation why you’ll have better luck asking someone out on a rickety bridge than on solid ground4 and why riding a roller coaster makes you find a date more attractive.5 Like most behaviors, fear and anxiety have evolutionary purposes: the fight or flight response keeps us alive, while fear of rejection kept our ancestors together in packs.6 After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fear levels increased in the US, but so did certain positive character traits, such as gratitude, kindness, leadership, and teamwork, increased measurably.7 Fear bonded us.
What does this tell us? Fear and anxiety are not bad. In fact, they can be incredibly useful. If you find yourself in the woods with the bear, maybe it’s all you can do to stand still and pray. Just don’t forget that anxiety is your body’s way of telling you something. By itself, anxiety can be petrifying. But identifying specific interventions in fearful situations is more likely to make you change your behavior in those situations8 -- and changing your behavior can be effective in ameliorating fear.9 Again: feeling fear is not enough. One has to identify and act upon interventions in order to stop being afraid.
Many interventions are simple, such as deliberate deep breathing10 or prescription medication. Some studies indicate that even just acknowledging fear can cause it to stop, or at least lessen it.11 The day after I published my first post on this blog, I had a mild panic attack. I reached out to a good friend of mine and this is what happened:
Me: “(Friend)?”
Friend: “Yes?”
M: “I’m scared.”
F: “Why?”
M: “People know things about me. Because of the blog.”
F: “Yea? And?”
M: “...ok.”
F: “Like what is different now?”

This conversation highlights a few things: First, that sometimes just acknowledging fear is enough to make it go away. Second, that analyzing fear can make it harmless. Lastly, that reaching out to others is good for your health. Yes, it could be that your friend helps you confront your fear; but, just being with people who care about you can help reduce stress.12 Don’t happen to be around people? Pets work too, especially dogs.13
After confronting my fear, I realized that starting this blog was one of the best things I could have done for my anxiety. At a basic level, I identified a specific intervention and acted on it. But more importantly, I have discovered what is in my opinion the most important thing any of us can have: the knowledge that I’m not alone. We are not alone. Family and friends expressed excitement and encouragement. There’s an entire community of people on Twitter living with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more mental illnesses. Hashtags like #breakthestigma, #fighterfriday, #selfcaresunday, and #iamnotashamed (there’s even t-shirts) get used hundreds, perhaps thousand of times every day. There’s #thankfulthursday, a nod to the gratitude list idea I mentioned in my previous post.
There is nothing wrong with having a mental illness, just like there is nothing wrong with having a sore throat or the common cold. And pretending we are not afraid can unnecessarily increase the stigma around these feelings. We need to make ourselves heard. We need to #breakthestigma. Reaching out is the single most important thing I’ve done because it’s reminded me that fear is normal.
Thousands refuse to let fear control them. Instead, they choose to let fear motivate them. When you’re ready, you can make this choice, too. Talk to your friends and family. Talk to me, start a blog or a twitter account, guest post here or at twloha. Remember that fear is your body telling you something. You don't run have to run from that. You can embrace it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still in the woods with the bear. I’m sure we have our differences to resolve. For now though, I’ve offered him my hand, and no real consequences have come of it. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll become good friends.

1Edmundson, L.D. “The Neurobiology of Fear.” Serendip. Retrieved 5/1/2016.
2American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
3 Brown, J.S., Alfred, J. “The role of fear in the motivation and acquisition of responses.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 39(6), Dec 1949. 747-59.
4Dutton, D.G., and Aron, A.P. “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction on condition of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 30, 1974. 510-17.
5Meston, C.M., & Frohlich, P.F. Love at first fright: Partner salience moderates roller coaster-induced excitation transfer. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 32, 2003. 537-44.
6Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, and Carrive P Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015 Jul; 23(4), 2015. 263–287.
7Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. Character strengths before and after September 11. Psychological Science, 14. 2006. 887-97.
8Levnthal, H., et al. “Effects of fear and instructions on how to cope with danger.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 6 (3), July 1967. 313-21.
9Lambert MJ, Bergin AE, Garfield SL. "Introduction and Historical Overview". In Lambert MJ. Bergin and Garfield's Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (5th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. 3–15. ISBN 0-471-37755-4.
10Hibbert, G.A., Chan, M. “Respiratory control: its contribution to the treatment of panic attacks. A controlled study.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 154 (2), Feb 1989. 232-36.
11Gilbert, D.T., et al. “Immune Neglect: A Source of Durability Bias in Affective Forecasting.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 75, 1998. 617-38.
12McGonigal, K. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for you, and How to Get Good at it. Penguin Random House, New York, New York. 2015. 13Wells, D.L. Domestic dogs and human health: An overview. British Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 12, 2007. 145-56.

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