Commusings: What Are You Afraid Of? by Jeff KrasnoJul 03, 2021
Hello Commune Community,
Happy Independence Day to the Americans. Profound apologies to the Brits. And a warm embrace to the balance of humanity.
In today’s missive, I excavate the nature and neurobiology of fear, revisiting a traumatic event from my youth. I can’t imagine I am alone, as I have never met anyone who completely eludes the clutches of this potent emotion.
In love, include me,
• • •
What Are You Afraid Of?
by Jeff Krasno
We dawdled down the congested corridor on our way to the cafeteria engaging in the typical pre-pubescent horseplay – giving each other flat tires, flicking each other’s ears and the like. Paul, Brian, Kevin and I, like many 12-year old boys, expressed our mutual affection through benign acts of cruelty.
The hallway that connected the lower and upper campuses of Saxe Middle School was lined with lofty windows on the west side and tall narrow lockers on the east. I don’t recall what nefarious trickery I had employed to prompt such a response, but I suddenly found myself being thrust across the hall by my mates. One ripped the backpack off my shoulder while the others corralled me toward the wall of lockers. And then, in the blink of an eye, all went black and cold. I was trapped, sealed tightly into a heretofore empty locker.
It didn’t take long for intense panic to set in. I began bellowing, kicking the metal door with my feet and pounding with my fists.
In reality, I don’t know how much spacetime elapsed during my sardining. Sixty seconds maybe? But it felt like an eternity. I have since tried to imagine the courage it must have taken to release me given my obvious distress, and the gumption for such bravery probably took some time to summon. When I was liberated, it was not a pretty sight. I staggered out, flailing my arms wildly, snot and spit spewing forth as if from an untended garden hose. Unable to focus my vision, I spiraled aimlessly like a whirling dervish, expanding the circumference of the circle of kids who had gathered like spectators at a zoo. Finally, Paul and Brian subdued me, bringing me to the floor where, slowly, I caught my breath and regained my wits.
New Canaan, Connecticut was not a forgiving place to grow up if you deviated from the norm. I suppose no place is. But there was a kind of gladiator mentality championed by the broad-chested lacrosse player that loathed weakness. The balance of that academic year was littered with schoolyard whispers, “that’s the kid who got trapped in the locker and freaked out.”
Much of my life since that day has been a meticulously crafted strategy to avoid the confined spaces of elevators, overcrowded subway cars, long tunnels, airplanes and middle seats of all sorts. This phenomenon, of course, is known as claustrophobia. My irrational fear extends well beyond the purely physical realm. Any situation from which I cannot easily extricate myself triggers different degrees of alarm. This condition makes, for example, sitting somewhere in the interior of the orchestra section at Cats, or any dramatic performance, completely intolerable. Fortunately, I loathe musical theater.
In closely examining the nature of this fear, I find it multi-layered. There is the dread associated with the anticipation of losing control. Then, there is the panic attack itself with its requisite sweatiness, lighted-headedness, heartbeat acceleration and profound nausea. And, lastly, there is the fear of judgment: the post-attack public evaluation that elicits a feeling of embarrassment or failure.
Claustrophobia is a learned fear, as opposed to an innate fear, and frequently the product of a traumatic event. Anxiety can often be mitigated through conscious un-avoidance. I hung my hat in New York City for twenty-five years. Obviously, I rode elevators, packed into taxis and notched millions of frequent flyer miles. The accomplishment of riding the A train at rush hour may seem inconsequential to most, but, in doing so, my angst was tempered and confidence bolstered.
I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for fifteen years between 2002 - 2017. In my early tenure there, the neighborhood was a rugged warehouse district, seldom visited by tony Manhattan denizens. The L station that welcomed trains headed in and out of the big city was a desolate wasteland. Discarded plastic bags tumbled across the tracks like sagebrush on highway 50, the loneliest road in the world. But after a decade of gentrification, the Bedford street platform teemed with every possible iteration of hipster. Often the cars were so jam-packed that you were forced to wait for multiple trains before being able to board.
One summer day, I sturdied myself and hopped the L to a meeting on the West Side of Manhattan. The subway car was so crowded that my nose literally pushed against the glass window, making me appear somewhat porcine from the outside. The trajectory of the train sloped downward and traveled underneath the East River. As an indication of this submarine voyage, your ears would pop as you descended under twater. Of course, I did my damnedest not to consciously fixate on the fact that I was journeying underneath a massive river with billions of pounds of pressure in a small steel tube brimming with nose-pierced, malodorous bohemians.
You might sense where this is going. Halfway through the passage under the river, the train came to an abrupt stop. It exhaled brusquely, making a sound similar to the removal of an air hose from a tire valve stem. The air conditioning ceased blowing through the vents. And the car sank, resting on its haunches. After five minutes, an uneasiness crept in and I started to feel the nausea well up from my stomach and into my throat. The blood drained from my head and my pallor turned gray.
Fear was setting in, but there was nowhere to run and no one to fight. Eventually, I froze — lifelessly crumpling to the ground, the availability of which was scarce.
There I lay, a grown man reduced to the position of a fetus, for 20 minutes until the train hurtled forward. I rolled out at the first stop, dripping equally with sweat and shame, canceled my meeting and walked the bridge back home vowing to conquer this anxiety disorder. Or, at the very least, understand it.
• • •
Fear is as ancient as sentient life on earth. It is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction evolved over biological history to protect organisms, including humans, against perceived threat.
Homo Sapiens have spent the majority of their time here on earth as hunter-gatherers, foraging for edible plants and pursuing wild animals on the savanna. The “fight or flight” response to external stimuli has undeniable utility, keeping us safe from charging rhinoceri roaming the Serengeti. In modern times, the likelihood of getting mauled by a horned, odd-toed ungulate is minuscule, but human biology has not evolved significantly over the past 12,000 years. However, the threats have evolved — or devolved. There were no lockers, subways, planes or elevators in East Africa in 10,000 BC. The menaces of modernity tend to be more psychological than physiological.
Let’s take a brief foray into the neurobiology of fear. Fright is a product of the brain and mediated by our autonomic nervous system, which regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination and sexual arousal. This system functions autonomously, hence its name, below the crust of conscious effort. The autonomic nervous system has two primary divisions: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system is most associated with “rest and digest,” decreasing respiration and heart rate and increasing gastrointestinal activity. The sympathetic nervous system directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. How does this work exactly?
The “fight, flight or freeze” response is initiated in a region of the brain called the amygdala. This almond-shaped mass of neurons in the temporal lobe is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of stimuli. A threat, such as the sight of a drunk man running toward you with a chainsaw, triggers a fear reaction in the amygdala, which, in turn, activates neural areas responsible for motor functions relating to either putting up a fight, getting the hell out of Dodge or becoming a possum.
What ensues is an internal neural debate between fear and reason, as if there could be any deliberation more emblematic of our times.
At the risk of glazing your eyes over with bio-jargon, I will delve one layer deeper. The amygdala interfaces with the endocrine system via the hypothalamus. The hormones epinephrine and cortisol are secreted into the bloodstream leading to a rise in blood pressure and pulmonary activity and a reduction of commotion in the stomach and intestines. Fatty acids convert into fuel for muscle use while pupils dilate and vision becomes tunneled.
While the body preps for fight or flight, there is a simultaneous, countervailing action that emerges in the hippocampus, the brain region dedicated to memory storage, that mitigates the fear response. Along with the prefrontal cortex, the rational decision-making part of the brain, these centers of reason assess the legitimacy of a threat. If the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex decide that the fear response is exaggerated, they can dampen the amygdala’s activity. For example, if the raging man with the chainsaw is simply being projected on a movie screen, our sensible “thinking brains” will overpower the primal parts of the brain’s automated fear response.
Intellectually, I can ascribe much of my claustrophobia to my penchant for fixating on the trauma of my past and projecting it into the future as a harrowing anticipated memory. I recognize that fear is merely an emotion arising and subsiding in consciousness moment to moment. He saunters into my house, like an uninvited guest at my dinner party, and, as soon as I approach him, he disappears with my favorite wine glass. When my mind snuggles into the quiet cradle of meditation, it knows that my fear of confined spaces is simply a phantom of my own projection. Rationally, I know I will be fine. I can breathe and witness the fear as a passing phenomenon.
However, despite this insight, I still occasionally feel the pall of terror envelop me in a crowded elevator. This is what I refer to as “amygdala hijack,” where the sympathetic nervous system eclipses my rational brain.
My friend and psychologist, Hala Khouri, posits that my locker incident may have left a somatic imprint. Here is Khouri’s diagnosis:
When we experience a terrorizing event that was inescapable (“an inescapable shock trauma”), the impulse to get away is not able to be expressed. If we don’t discharge that energy, the impulse gets trapped in the body. For you, it’s possible that each time you feel constricted, you reconnect to the intolerable feelings from that event and the impulses to escape it also emerge. Even though the situations you describe are probably tolerable, they are associated with a terrorizing event and your nervous system goes into overwhelm as a result.
In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer refers to this intractable trauma as samskara, a recurring energy pattern that becomes stuck.
Fear rears its unsightly head in myriad ways. People bear the burden of phobias from snakes (ophidiophobia) to failure, from heights (acrophobia) to judgment, from needles (trypanophobia) to death. Fear can become part of our personal story, girding our sense of identity.
Humans exist at the intersection of consciousness and personhood. Consciousness is the space in which we perceive thoughts, sensations and emotions arising moment to moment. This experienced life unfolds in the now. We are simply bobbing down this river of impermanence seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling and hearing.
Our personhood is the contents of consciousness. It is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that inform what it is like to be us. This narrative life shapes our identity through the collection of infinitesimally small slices of spacetime. Our lives become a stack of these memories, like a towering heap of cheese singles. One moment is so much like the last one and the one before. While there is no conventional stable self within the space of consciousness, our narrative life provides us with the physical and psychological continuity that codifies our perceived identity. In a sense, our narrative life sits within our experienced life and contributes stories, sometimes traumatic, that can elicit the appearance of fear, anger and other emotions.
Of course, not all fear is detrimental. Fear can also be understood as awe or reverence for something powerful. You can recognize the potency and potential danger of a massive hurricane and, in turn, take shelter. Fear can serve as a barometer for making sensible choices.
But most of the fears we experience on a regular basis are extremely limiting and, in some cases, paralyzing. If fear is prohibiting you from reaching your potential, the antidote may consist of applying theory and training to direct experience.
We can train the mind to witness negative emotions and thoughts as simply phenomena arising and subsiding in consciousness. Mindfulness, sacred non-judgmental presence, helps us to not fixate on or identify with old stories. Instead, we let them go.
We can apply this cognitive training to playing with the edges of our fears, to experimenting with discomfort. For example, I can choose to encase myself like a vegan sausage in a sensory deprivation tank, a tight cylindrical space that would normally elicit a significant freakout. I can witness the nausea, the dizziness and the myriad symptoms of fear arise without assigning any valence to them. If the fear becomes unbearable, I can bail out. This exercise is tantamount to going to a mental gym. I am building the muscle of the pre-frontal cortex.
And at some point, certainly, I will be confined to a small space against my will. This absence of choice will test my mental musculature.
Undoubtedly, the most famous quotation about fear was articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his inauguration day in 1933:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Our proclivity for personal phobias plays out in broader society. Media propagates fear through sensationalism and biased editorial in the name of selling ads. Authoritarians stir up a frenzy of fright around crime and jobs and offer up scapegoats as a means to seize and maintain power. Social media addicts post chilling disinformation in exchange for neural rewards.
The result is this: We are an amygdala-hijacked culture trapped in a locker tethered to incessant outrage.
If we are to fulfill our individual and collective potential then we must cultivate the ability to discern between true threat and “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” And this capacity only emerges out of a commitment to rigorously examine the nature of the mind.
Consciousness is a double-edged saber. The cognizance of our own impermanence is the sharp point in our collective side. Yet, this sentience provides the opportunity for the neo-mammalian brain to dull the reptilian, to pour the water of reason onto the fire of fear. Otherwise, we spend our lives fruitlessly kicking the door of the locker.
It’s our choice. We can be a host for reason or a hostage to fear.
What are we afraid of?
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