By Jennifer Munn
At a recent dinner party, sitting around a fire pit, the sky darkened and conversations turned more serious. Someone asked what each of us wanted to do next. It’s the kind of question that precedes a milestone, like when your youngest child moves out. But on this evening, it was unexpected and I felt a pang of doubt.
While we went around the fire pit sharing goals, my brain buffered, trying to load something worthy. Then I shuddered. I literally had a post-trauma-like sensation, as past challenges came to mind. The memories triggered fear. Fear of failure. Fear of appearing stupid. Fear of driving across the shoulder, over the edge and plummeting into the sea. This fear was primal. Immediately, I started to backtrack, downshifting to more comfortable memories and thoughts. My pulse slowed as I settled on my pedestrian response — I would run a 10K road race.
But as my turn came, that memory-triggered fear had me firing on all cylinders. I felt more awake in that moment than I had since I arrived.
“I want to feel more afraid.”
Boom! It came out of my mouth and into the ether. This half-formed, tequila-induced idea was floating above the flames, swirling like smoke in the silence, as heads cocked to process this concept. My heart was racing and my palms grew sweaty. I had changed gears and was driving out of my comfort zone in a particularly public way.
I can’t stop an internal debate between the sensible notion of age-appropriate risk avoidance and the nagging feeling that I’m cheating myself.
I remember the fluttering, flickering feeling in my stomach when I was crouching at the top of “Jump Rock” above Phelps Lake in Jackson Hole, trying to gather the courage to stand and walk to the edge and jump. I remember the clammy palms and dry mouth when I was about to go before our annual Town Meeting, requesting support for the regional school district budget. Any of those events bring up the fear. But getting past those fears and making the jump, giving the speech, was exhilarating. I haven’t felt that level of euphoria in a while.
Since that evening by the fire pit, I can’t stop an internal debate between the sensible notion of age-appropriate risk avoidance and the nagging feeling that I’m cheating myself if I succumb to sensible notions. Is this situation particular to middle age?
Anecdotally, I hear those in their 50s are experiencing stronger, more debilitating symptoms – racing heart, sweating, and vertigo — from experiences that might have made them feel only mildly uncomfortable as a younger people. What may have only irritated them when they were younger, can now be incapacitating. Of course, the older we are, the easier it seems to be to leave the fear-producing event — if I don’t want to jump from a boulder into a lake, I simply walk away. My cousin, who even on a prophylactic dose of Xanax couldn’t hack the dentist office, left her appointment and rescheduled with full sedation. But I believe there is a cost in walking away and benefits to reap for staying and facing down those fears.
A few years ago, Gerald Marzorati, a former editor of The New York Times Magazine, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times which spoke of prolonging your health through middle age by adopting new, challenging actives. He chose tennis, which he pursued with passion. Marzorati knew he would never master the game, but he understood that the process by which he worked toward competency had widespread physical and intellectual benefits.
Exposing ourselves to doses of fear helps us build up the ability to overcome greater challenges.
After reading the article, I wondered if facing your fears also promotes healthy aging. To explore this thought further, I reached out to Seth Gillihan, Ph.D. who helps patients overcome their fears through Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in Ardmore, PA, and asked whether people experience more fear and anxiety as they enter middle age. I wondered if there was a cognitive benefit to facing our fears and if we would lead diminished lives by avoiding our fears.
Dr. Gillihan says, “The science shows that most anxiety problems emerge earlier in life, but that people can develop new issues with fear and anxiety in their fifties and beyond. Hormonal changes can have an impact on how we process our fears. “Estrogen plays an important role in our experience of fear,” he says.
In order to help his patients, overcome their fears, Dr. Gillihan suggests engaging with “doses of fear” to help the brain learn new information. Through experience with moderate levels of fear, the brain learns that an acute response is no longer necessary. “Exposing ourselves to doses of fear helps us build up the ability to overcome greater challenges. Conversely, we strengthen our fears when we circumvent them.”
“By moving toward the things that scare us, our brains learn to fear them less,” says Gillihan. “On the other hand, the more we avoid things in life, the more our fears grow…When fear leads to avoidance and avoidance leads to a smaller world, there are fewer experiences to engage our minds and preserve our cognitive skills.”
By facing our fears, he says, “there is tremendous potential to improve quality of life, not to mention the benefits to our self-concept of witnessing our own courage.”
I proposed my hypothesis to Gillihan about how engaging with fear might promote healthier cognitive function in aging brains. He says he hadn’t seen any data to prove that. “But,” he says. “I suspect it does. Engagement gives us a wide range of activities that keep our minds sharp.”
By facing our fears, he says, “there is tremendous potential to improve quality of life, not to mention the benefits to our self-concept of witnessing our own courage.” That rang true for me. That experience is what generates the full-body sensation of elation and strength – the cognitive equivalent of a burst of adrenaline. This is what I miss and remember from earlier in my life.
I am more and more convinced that we all need to be afraid to keep our cylinders firing and bolster our ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The flipside of fear is euphoria. I want that life-affirming feeling. You don’t have to walk a tight rope between buildings. But take the wheel and drive out of your comfort zone. Knock on doors for a candidate, sing karaoke, switch jobs, climb a watchtower to watch the sunrise.
Being afraid may not take ten years off your life, it may add quality to the next twenty. So, I’m going to buckle up and look forward to being afraid more often.
About the Writer
Jennifer Munn (Bucket Age 24) is primarily a mother of two relatively adult children; most weekdays she is also a marketing consultant, a library volunteer and a bit of a political junkie. Previously, she was a PR executive and served on her local school board. She and her husband, Dave, live with their dog, Wilson, in Concord, Massachusetts.
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