The Fear Factor - Part II

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last week, in a sharepost entitled The Fear Factor, I observed:

    “It may be helpful to think of ourselves as wired for fear, egged on by our environment. As well as contributing to our illness symptoms and various behaviors, this primal emotion also interferes in our recovery, and probably has a lot to do with why so many of us remain “stuck” in our present half-lives.”

    This drew a general concordance from readers. For instance, Jackie commented:

    “I often obsess over my future in a way that I know is abnormal. I get angry and then depressed sometimes because I am so self-aware yet cannot make the changes that I recognize as necessary.”

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    Similarly, according to Tabby: “I want to change and I want to move forward and yet, and yet, I recognize I keep myself from doing so out of fear.”

    Mejeba paints an eloquent picture of her emotions closing in around her:

    “I have different facets to my fear, from standing paralyzed in the middle of a room not knowing what to do, to hiding from the phone, people at the door, and many many social situations, to a hateful voice in my head that feels like pure evil laughing at my distress.”

    In terms of our personal lives, the consequences are enormous. As Moonmaiden notes: “I have a fear of rejection combined with a certain resignation, which probably stunts me socially.”

    Unfortunately, genes and biology, with a strong assist from past trauma and abuse, have a way of making it look like we were born under a bad sign. Temperament, after all, is a heritable trait.

    Earlier this year, at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to listen to Robert Cloninger MD of Washington University (St Louis). Dr Cloninger has broken down personality into four traits, roughly equating to the four humors of the ancient Greeks. For instance, high “harm avoidance” combined with low “novelty seeking” sets us up for being largely incapacitated over large parts of our lives.

    So, imagine feeling comfortable in this miserable state of a half-life. Depression and anxiety is a given, along with a host of other possibilities. We seek help, but our doctors tend to call it a success when they medicate ourselves back our baseline state. But who wants to be stuck in a state like this? In perpetuity.

    Too many of us, unfortunately. We tend to be comfortable in the life we know, even if that life is sorely wanting. I’ve been on the receiving end of the same depressing narratice in more support groups than I can count, people who are clearly not happy in their present circumstances, but who fear the unknown.


    These are people who are not about to find new jobs, new friends, new places to live, new means to enrichen their lives. They are fearful of losing the little they have, even if what they have keeps them stuck in profound impoverishment.

    According to Dr Cloninger, complex adaptive systems such as personality operate like nonlinear thermodynamic systems. "Stable State A," for instance, may be okay, as everything nearby is worse. But "Stable State B" is where you want to be. But activating the energy to get from A to B tends to involve perturbations that initially makes one feel worse.

  • Says Dr Cloninger: "You have to go through this valley of tears to get there, and that's painful."

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    Psychiatry tends to be focused on "keeping people close to their local optimum," in other words at Stable State A. And if fear has the upper hand in your Stable State A, well, you figure it out.

    Fortunately, we do not have to be helpless bystanders. More later ...

Published On: September 18, 2009