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Face Your Fears

I once met a bunch of skydivers at a pizza parlor in Ocean City, Maryland. They amazed me because they were all in the grip of some elation. I found out that they had spent the day doing a big skydiving event, so one would naturally think that after landing, one would be feeling pretty good. I actually asked if I could buy one of their caps, nice baseball caps that just said “Elsinore.” They were too proud of the caps to let them go, and they were some kind of marker for these guys (which I am using in the generic sense of “you guys” as they weren’t all male). I just wanted one as we would be doing “Finding Hamlet” at our College orientation, and I’d given the kid playing Hamlet my Wittenberg College t-shirt the previous year, and thought this might be even better. Apparently “Elsinore” is a big drop-zone in California.

Their elation wasn’t just about feeling good after a performance, or from safely landing after skydiving. Yes, one might feel pretty wonderful after landing, but it turns out that feeling gets even better the more you do it. Why? Our nervous systems are organized into any number of opponents, from excitatory and inhibitory neurons, to the opposition between the Fight-Flight and the Rest-and-Repair parts of our autonomic nervous systems, to the balances in our bodies between any number of exciting and damping functions. Think about the relationship between flexor and extensor muscles. If you flex a muscle, you tense the flexor and relax the extensor, but you can relax both and just let a limb hang, or you can increas the tension of both, like when you do isometric exercises.

Opponent processes can help us understand things from the nastiness of addictions to how we might live happier lives.

Richard Solomon developed an “Opponent Process Theory” in the 1980s that helps understand this. It turns out that to whatever stimulus your body is reacting, part of how it does so is by opposing the effects of the stimulus.

If you imagine the effects of a stimulus as a kind of a square curve, the excitation rises fairly quickly to a plateau, then tails off pretty quickly to asymptote when stimulus comes to an end. Meantime, your nervous system is generating an opponent process, an inhibition that starts after the onset of the stimulus, and doesn’t reach as extreme of a plateau, and then asymptotes from the opposite direction toward baseline. Your experienced emotion is a summation of these two effects, so your level of excitation rises quickly at first, but then comes down a step, still well above baseline, as your nervous system’s opponent process tries to balance things out. After the stimulus ceases, the excitation is gone, but the negative effect of the opponent process, still returning to baseline produces a negative trough in your experience.

Imagine the first time you get inebriated, or your first shot of heroin. There is an initial peak in the high, which then settles down into a “happy place” plateau, but then when the inebriant, or the heroin wears off, you feel bad, and the negative trough represents a hangover, or withdrawal symptoms. You might imagine the same kind of graph upon seeing your new love: Your initial elation upon seeing him or her, your excitement and rapid heartbeat, quickly settles into the happy glow of merely being with them, but you feel bad when they leave.

The problem is, with repeated experiences of the same stimulus, your body is learning to respond more effectively, the initial high isn’t as great, and the plateau, while above baseline, may not be by very much, but the negative trough at the cessation of the stimulus is now actually much worse.

It is that deeper negative trough that makes you want to repeat the stimulus, and at least get back to baseline. Hence, addiction. The stimulus still produces a positive effect, but not by much, while the absence of it feels horrible.

Now, I’m not saying that every time you do something that makes you feel good you are at risk of addiction, but these risks exist with many, many enjoyable experiences, that you need to come back to again and again, increase the dosage, and feel worse when the substance, the activity, or the person is no longer there, no longer providing stimulation. Some of the stimulation is about novelty, too, about the stimulation of the unexpected, which is also going to decline the more you are able to anticipate about the stimulus substance, event, or person.

This is not happy news. This means that the route to happiness may not be in seeking out the things, events, or people that make you feel good. It gets worse. It turns out that our entire emotional system is designed to produce much greater intensities with negative emotions. This actually makes sense in terms of evolutionary survival. If things are fine, if you are feeling good, if you are sated, you really don’t have to do anything. But if you are afraid, or angry, or even just disgusted, you feel pressed to take some action, and the emotional intensity may reflect that. We also habituate to positive feelings more rapidly. You don’t have to do anything, so you don’t really have to pay attention, and may no longer even be having any conscious experience. Think about getting a new pair of shoes, or really, anything you get from the “shopping” high. You put the new shoes on, or the new article of clothing, and do your little “fashion show” with your family or friends, and you feel pretty sharp. But after a few hours, or the first few times wearing them, and they’re just your shoes (not that anyone else would have noticed your new shoes in the first place, unless you drew attention to them). Try putting a rough pebble in your shoe sometime and see how long takes to habituate. The lesson is that you really don’t, and you have to take off the shoe and removed the damn pebble before it ceases to be annoying. Research psychology shows that the effects of positive emotions are mainly to bring us back to baseline faster, and to allow us to step back and see the forest for the trees, have some perspective, see the bigger picture, but they aren’t much on their own. The intensity is from the opponent negative emotions.

So what to do? Should you just surrender the attempt to seek out what makes you happy, admit that the effort is futile, and give up in despair? You could always become a Buddhist, realize that life is suffering, that trying to be happy by seeking what you desire is like pouring gasoline on a fire, that you need to learn that your ego is an illusion, and dampen your desires, meditate and seek equanimity. Well, it may be to your advantage to do that too, but there is another lesson to be fond here. You may already have learned that your ego-defenses, those tactics of self-deception by which an ego is formed in the first place, are really defenses against anxiety. What you deny, or disown, or avoid because it makes you anxious or afraid are precisely what forms your boundaries, your walls, your armor, but these are also the limits of what you are, and you can never grow, change, or expand beyond them without confronting them, without facing your fears. When these defenses have become unconscious, that is, when you have learned to avoid thinking about them you may not even be aware they are there, and childish, even infantile fears may actually be what is limiting you. When you face your fears you may find they aren’t as bad as you thought, that they are silly or immature. Or even if they are not, that you can learn strategies or tactics to deal with those things, which themselves become habitual, require a lot less attention, and become far less dominant. But opponent processes, and my Elsinore skydivers have an even better lesson.

Remember the graphs? Where the vertical axis is positive, even ecstatic experience above baseline, and our negative trough of hangover, withdrawal, or loss below it? What if we just reverse the sign, or, for those of you that can’t adjust to “up” being negative and “down” positive, you can just upend the graphs in a mirror. So the effect of the “stimulus” is actually negative, the stimulus being something that you fear like, say, jumping out of an airplane from a mile or so up. On your first jump¸ your nervous system is opposing this fear, so the net effect of the fear-producing (or should we say terrorizing) stimulus and the opponent emotion, is an intense experience of fear at the outset, the opponent emotion reducing it to a plateau of moderate fear during most of the experience, and then, when the stimulus over (you have safely landed), the opponent emotion is then producing a strong positive affect. That’s nice. If you can face the huge fear initially, you feel a very positive emotion when it is over. Sure, like when you stop beating your head against a brick wall? Why do it? For many years I went to a yearly conference on an island off the coast of Maine, where you could take a pre-breakfast dip in ocean water that was 55-60 degrees Farenheit. For most people at the conference it was “why would you want to do that?” “For some it was, “OK, just to get you off my back, I’ll do it once.” For the “Polar Bears,” not only did you get your name in the next day’s conference newsletter the (which is how we recruited a lot of kids), but you also got to enjoy the rest of the morning on the endorphin high from the freezing water. Why would I go jump out of an airplane? Remember my Elsinore gang?

The lesson is from the reversal of the graph of what the experience is like after multiple repetitions. After multiple skydiving experiences, with each jump, there is an initial little bump of fear right at the beginning, followed by a fear that is a little more intense than baseline, but not by much, during the rest of the dive, followed by an even more intense opponent emotion, the opposite of fear, more like elation, upon safe landing. The lesson is, not only does facing your fear, especially repeatedly, substantially reduce the fear itself, but then spawns a follow-up elation that only gets better the more you do it.

Now, you don’t have to be a skydiver to do this, but think about the things you fear, the repeated facing of which might actually be good for you, or give you a better life. Most people have a pretty serious fear of public speaking. I remember being a graduate student in psychology and giving my first lecture to a hall including my own avisors, and about 70 upper-level undergraduates. It didn’t matter that I was lecturing on one of my favorite topics, but I had the dry, pasty mouth and butterflies in my stomach of any first such experience. Thank God I was behind a podium so students couldn’t see how violently my knees were shaking, or worry that they would see the puddle if I peed myself. The fear declined to a baseline pretty quickly, as I got into the material, and my opponent emotion balanced my nerves a bit. And yes, I felt pretty good after it was over, and I was fielding questions from a gaggle of students who stayed around after class and wanted to know more.

The punch line? How do you suppose I feel, standing in front of an audience 30-plus years later, whether of students or even of professional peers? I’m a little nervous at the outset, and my arousal during most of a presentation is certainly above baseline (but not by much). But afterwards, I am elated, I feel like a god, or at least a rock star. I remember summer teaching in the evening, when by 7 PM you’re in your after-dinner trough, feeling a little drowsy, and the last thing you want to do is drag yourself to the College and talk for three hours. Three hours later I’m completely ramped up and may take another hour or two before my excitement, even elation, can dissipate. I gave a talk at a scholarly society on which I worked for six months, including a PowerPoint and a 40-page manuscript. The morning of the talk, I read the manuscript over again for the umpteenth time. But when I got to the podium, I just chucked the manuscript under the table and talked to the slides. I was later told it was the best talk of the conference, and got elected to the society as result.

I recently officated at the wedding of two friends and was surprised to discover that one of my capacities, after a generation of teaching and speaking before professional audiences, is that I am relatively comfortable and even confident speaking in front of others. Enough so, in fact, that my own level of comfort can actually work to put others at ease. No wonder, I suppose, that I spent at least the latter half of a long academic career not only thinking on my feet, improvising and taking risks, making the content of what I taught more vivid, compelling, and engaging, but felt like I was at my metier in front of a class. One colleague told me that my students were often rapt with attention. I know that they often didn’t notice when I was going beyond the scheduled time.

So, “face your fear” has become something of a mantra with me. Enough so that I could catch my eight-year old son mimic me, holding his pet boa constrictor around his waist, showing off in front of three little girls, saying “face your fear.” This was the same son who, when I was riding in a clear plexiglass car with him on a ferris wheel at Navy Pier in Chicago “so that he would feel safer” and instead had a panic attack, could be standing on the seat, banging his hands on the plexiglass to draw the attention of his sister and his cousins, delighted that “Daddy’s freaking out, daddy’s freaking out!” I’ve never been particularly afraid of heights. I love the view from high places, love flying, especially take-offs and landings (I even took flying lessons one summer), and loved a balloon ride over Amish country at dawn (where one is tempted to call down from the silence “Hey, down there, this is God”). No, the problem I later discovered on the same trip, having another panic attack from inside the top of the St. Louis Arch. Looking out, I loved the view. But then I looked down. It turns out I’m a bit phobic of having nothing beneath my feet, and I have had the same experience on one of those metal walkways next to the wall of an old Spanish castille, which they keep so tourists don’t wear down the actual parapets. So what to do?

Face Your Fear! I owed it to my students and to myself. How could I dramatically confront a fear of having nothing under my feet? Jump out of an airplane. So I scheduled one of those tandem skydives, and went with my son, on Father’s Day, the summer before I turned 60. I took the instruction, and then got to go early as the owner of the facility and his skydiving buddy were also jumping, This is a guy who breaks the Guinness record every time he jumps. My jump videographer, the owner’s young wife, had to keep me distracted with conversation getting up to two miles of altitude. By then I was surrendering to my tandem ride, and the owner and his jump buddy were poetry in motion as they leapt off the strut. My peak moment of fear was at the moment we jumped.

But after that moment, my fear was vaporized, and I found a new kind of flying. The videographer even took my hand and gave me a spin. I felt jealous when our parachute opened and I watched the videographer free fall another 30 seconds.

After a beautiful drift down to the ground, pulling up my legs to glide onto the ground and then assisted out of the chute by the daughter of the videographer, she said: “How do you feel?” I just said: “Can I go again?” My son slept in that morning, but when I dangled my feet over a high cliff during a later hike, I felt only freedom.