The fear of fear itself

From multiple sources and stimuli this week, a penny has dropped… as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said one of the biggest things we fear is fear itself;

There’s a name and a proper medical definition for it: phobophobia. But there’s also a bit of chicken and egg about all this: which comes first – the feeling or the thought?

As a person who spends a lot of time in my own head, I’d concluded it was often the ‘thought’ that comes first. I’d assumed for a lot of things it’s thoughts which gets the fear cycle going; thinking of something going wrong or that could be painful, embarrassing, poverty-inducing or lethal for example. But now I’m not so sure…

A combo of a bit of mindfulness, and some very helpful prompting from someone posing the question – “Where do thoughts come from?” has had me pondering.

On one level it seems easy; thanks to our old friend Descartes. With ‘I think therefore I am’, Descartes has firmly planted in our minds that it’s the thinking that defines us; so it’s easy to assume it’s the thinking that comes first. But is it?

Lots of great thinkers suggest otherwise. Aristotle and Aquinas had us down as composites of flesh and blood and mind – and far closer to animals than pure ‘spirit’.

Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Human, and Divine

So back to the question I’ve been asked: “Where are the thoughts coming from?”

The short answer is I’m not entirely sure; but what is increasingly clear is they are not all coming from my Cartesian ‘conscious’ mind. Lots of them come unbidden. They ‘well up’ from the subconscious. And today I caught one ‘popping up’ from a place of pure feelings…

You have to be soooo fast to catch the mind. It’s like running a precision scientific experiment, it’s all in the milliseconds… But, while cheffing up a beetroot curry this lunchtime – from nowhere I had a vague generalised sense of anxiety – and a millisecond later a thought popped up to help me explain it. And immediately the two become one and the thought becomes the ‘source’ of the anxiety.

But it wasn’t. I simply concentrated on the feeling – and both went away. There is no reason to believe the specific ‘thought’ I had was anything to do with the general feeling of anxiety. I was ‘feeling’ anxious that my precious Sunday was half over – but the ‘thought’ was about a specific work-related problem I’ll be back to facing on Monday. Related but independent. Correlated but not causally connected…

What if the arrow of causation is the other way around… what if most or all of my thoughts are triggered by feelings… two books I’m reading suggest there’s something in this.

The first, ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright, points out that our emotions and perceptions were shaped by natural selection – not to be accurate, but to spread our genes.

All emotions and feelings, Wright points out, basically come from the same thing an amoeba has – a primordial urge to ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’. Our fancy mental apparatus can post-hoc rationalise it all, and give them more subtle and sophisticated names; but they are just differently packaged composites of approach/avoid.

The second ingredient comes from The Power of Negative Emotion by Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan.

Their argument is we need negative emotions not least to spur us into action.

Richard Wright’s point is that natural selection deliberately keeps us anxious; Biswas-Diener and Kashdan advise us to embrace and use that.

So today I slightly changed a mantra I have in one of my many lists of ‘things to remember’. It was:

Avoid fear as a motivator

And now I’ve changed it to:

Accept fear is a motivator

And why? Simply because it is; fear is a motivator, and avoiding it means avoiding pretty much everything.

The limbic system is way more powerful than conscious thought as a motivator – it has been keeping ‘all creatures great and small’ safe for hundreds of millions of years.

There’s no point trying to avoid fear, you just have to feel it; and then do something about it.