Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

When Fears Come True, And Disappear

When Fears Come True, And Disappear

Cary Tennis, an advice columnist at Salon, is currently on leave while he undergoes treatment for cancer. In the meantime, he's blogging about his experiences in a very personal way. Recently, he wrote about how the experience of coming so close to death has erased many of his old fears:

I realized a few weeks ago how much fear had dominated so many aspects of my life. It wasn't big enormous fear. It was little fears. Like little fears of being uncomfortable about stuff. And now, after all I've been through, after what I've faced, I just kind of don't have that. I don't have that complex of behaviors to avert little pains and such. So this is fascinating, and maybe the biggest single change I've undergone in years. Not sure I'm describing it right, but it's a good thing and good things will come of it.

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We spend so much of our lives worrying that the worst might happen, yet when it does, so often it winds up deepening our lives and giving us an appreciation of life that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

Fear is a force that gives life meaning. After hiker Johann Otter was mauled nearly to death by a grizzly bear in Glacier National Park, he underwent a long and painful rehabilitation that included three months with his head wired in a metal halo. Yet, strangely, his experience on that mountain trail is something that now seems indescribably valuable to him. "After something like that, you have a much better realization of the things that are really worth something in life," he says. "Things you can't buy. It's people around you. It's the people on the trail who found me and kept me alive until I could be rescued. I couldn't have bought their help. It was just good will. That's an incredible realization."

One side effect, Otter says, is that many of life's small daily fears have vanished. He used to loathe public speaking, and was filled with dread every time he was asked to give a presentation in front of conferences at work. Now, he says, "If I have to go in front of a big group," he says, "I just think to myself, ‘Well, what's worse, facing 300 people or a grizzly bear?'"

Catastrophe victims frequently report that they lead richer lives in the aftermath. Coming face to face with intense danger, and overcoming it, can help us appreciate our inner strength and renew our gratitude for life. After Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, causing 1500 deaths and displacing hundreds of thousands, outrage over the scale of the trauma created a national scandal. Yet in the aftermath, eight out of ten survivors said they felt they had a deeper purpose than before the storm.

Nobody wants to be diagnosed with cancer, be attacked by bear, or be displaced by a hurricane. But even as we fear these things, we should remember that it's the battles that we endure that give our lives depth and texture, and that, above all, provide us with a profound sense of gratitude for life.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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