I Am Terrified of Everything

My dad used to say nearly every time I saw him, “Do one thing a day that scares you.” Which, isn’t difficult for me, as I’m terrified of nearly everything. Getting out of bed can sometimes be a Sisyphean obstacle. Even if I hid inside the sheets all day my mind would find ways to come up with scenarios to terrify me – death by apathy, a sudden illness, a life lived in shallow depths.

Out of the big 5 personality traits, I score fairly high in neuroticism and low on extraversion. Although I’m not scared so much of spiders and snakes as I am of people’s disapproval, an early death, having to talk to a cashier early in the morning, or of accidentally meeting eye contact. It’s like there’s a catalyst inside me for igniting neurotic fantasies. It’s a good evolutionary trait to have I suppose, the cautious are more likely to take less risks than the bold. If I never go after the jaguar’s throat, the jaguar can’t rip out mine.

Fear is one of the oldest emotions, and its hardcoding into our nervous system makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Fear is a marker. It lets our bodies know when they need to release adrenaline and react to try and preserve our lives.

However, we’ve evolved as a society to the point that most of us in our day to day lives, we do not have to fight for our lives or encounter casual violence. We’re rarely out hunting jaguars and mammoths, and if we want to do something physically risky, like skydive or skateboard or head off to war, it’s usually our choice.

But sometimes when we walk into a room for an interview at a prospective new job, the fear that we feel is similar to diving into dark waters full of reptilian creatures. Consciously, we know that we’re not in physical danger, but there are older, more primitive parts of our brains that get kicked into survival overdrive. That’s a kind of ancient mechanism that can’t be reasoned with.

One of my earliest recurring dreams as a child is of getting out of bed in the middle of the night, walking into the hallway outside my room, and screaming.

I don’t really know why I’m screaming. There’s nothing in the external environment that’s terrifying. It’s just a dream-like representation of my regular childhood home. But I can feel this cold, creeping, isolating dread surrounding me. As I’ve gotten older, I realized that there were things happening in my environment that I was reacting to, but not yet able to properly understand on a conscious level.

As I scream, I become constricted. My limbs move slower. The air becomes harder to push out of my lungs. But I can’t stop screaming, until I’m nearly frozen in place.

That’s why when I first saw Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, I knew exactly what it was about. The man in the painting seems compressed by the landscape around him, as if his personal anxiety makes the very world become inhospitable, poised to choke and imprison.

Fear isn’t going to go away. Ever. It’s constantly adapting, changing shape, letting you know that your heart should pound and your pupils dilate because the body’s primary function is to keep us alive, not to make the living enjoyable. “Do one thing a day that scares you.” Maybe when you’re a child that’s crossing a big room to grab a sippy cup, or being talked to by someone with a loud and exuberant voice. Maybe as an adult, it’s the fear of your child’s safety, or of death. However old you are fear can grow to the point it can paralyze you, diminish your life, reduce your quality of existence, so that you’re.

Fear doesn’t usually care whether or not you’re happy. Fear can be wildly irrational. You may be living in a squalid flat, with no friends or job because you’re too terrified to speak to everyone and jump and hide when the phone rings, but hey, according to the bristling fear inside of you, at least you’re safe.

As a human being in this society, we have to determine our relationship to fear and its mechanisms. We have to decide how we’re going listen to it, and how we react to it.

But it’s also not something to be ignored. I hear a lot of people talking about how fear needs to be conquered. How it’s something that needs to be bullied, pushed, squeezed, and taunted into submitting to you. How it’s essentially useless.

Saying that you’re going to conquer fear is like saying that you’re going to conquer gravity, or conquer light. It’s a ubiquitous and constant presence. Without fear, we probably wouldn’t even be alive, much less human.

Everything in us is a mechanism to help us, even if its methods are oftentimes broken

Fear has done good things for me. It’s told me to beware of men who have the souls of sharks, of dark alleyways, of kitchen knives. It’s taught me not to walk barefoot through glass and to buckle my seatbelt.

It can also be a catalyst for pushing us forward, for making an honest assessment of our lives and our accomplishments.

I am intimately familiar with fear.

As someone who has PTSD, I know what it’s like to freeze and feel like all the blood is draining out of me, to hear the ringing and the hot whiteness of a body screaming to run all because someone spoke the wrong word.

To be unable to sleep without a nightlight for fear of some indeterminable other. To wake up alone to the sound of a gunshot ringing through my dreams. To shy away from windows and never leave my back to doors. To look at a cellphone ringing like it’s a live fire. To be so scared of opening my mouth that my mind goes blank and my fingers seize and all I can think of is running, pushing my head down into pillows, and never getting up again.

I know what it’s like to be the screamer in The Scream.

I am terrified of everything. And every day I must make a choice, of how I interact with that fear in relation to myself and what’s important to me. “Do one thing a day that scares you?” We can’t avoid it. It’s built into the infrastructure of our souls.

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