Face Your Fears

It’s a fairly common occurrence. You’re busy bustling around the house — taking care of this and that, your mind preoccupied with the multiple tasks at hand — when you suddenly turn a corner and let out a shriek of fright. The startling moment, though, rapidly gives way to a feeling of intense relief, as your brain quickly processes the fact that this unexpected person is not a dangerous thief, but a non-threatening family member. Phew!

This relief response is a uniquely human characteristic, at least according to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, chief of Neurobehavioral Health at Ohio State University. “When stress activates the amygdala,” Brownlowe told Live Science, “it temporarily overrides conscious thought so that the body can divert all of its energy to facing the (perceived) threat. …The release of neurochemicals and hormones causes an increase in heart rate and breathing, shunts blood away from the intestines and sends more to the muscles. … It puts all the brain’s attention into ‘fight-or-flight.’”

But there is a difference in the ways humans and animals deal with fear. “We can get startled,” explained Brownlowe, “but instead of running away like bunny rabbits, we reassess the situation and figure out that we don’t need to respond in a ‘fight-or-flight’ manner. And then we can just get on with our day.” So that ability to take a step back and rationally assess the situation is something that sets us apart from the animal kingdom.

Amazingly enough, a large portion of humanity seeks out fearful experiences, like riding roller coasters or viewing terrifying media programs. Is fear pleasurable for them? According to Brownlowe, no. What they are enjoying is the ensuing chemical euphoria. “Once the ‘fight-or-flight’ signals cease,” Brownlowe elaborated, “the brain releases neurotransmitters and hormones that mediate … ‘rest-and-digest’ … heart rate [comes] down, breathing is slowing, goose bumps are relaxing. There’s a sense of internal cognitive relief in the body, and that feels good.” Brownlowe postulates that this can help people face life’s inevitable stressors and anxieties. For example, “if you are anxious about talking to your boss about getting a raise, and then you get the [wits] scared out of you, talking to your boss is no big deal.”

I guess Brownlowe’s motto would be: If you’re scared, scare yourself even more! Kind of like the desensitization component inherent in the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. A noted psychotherapy clinic director once put it this way: “If you’re scared of spiders and are locked in a room full of spiders for a week, do you think you’ll still be scared of spiders at the end of that week?” Perhaps not, if you survive the ordeal and don’t die from fear.

Not surprisingly, we Jews seem to have a divergent tradition in dealing with fear. Ein od milvado. It’s the mantra, says Harav Chaim Volozhiner, that can overcome any fearful situation. Intently focusing on the fact that there is not even one subatomic particle in the entire universe that exists without the will of its Creator neutralizes the influence of perceived negative forces. The Brisker Rav employed this tactic during his escape from German-conquered Poland during the Holocaust. Numerous times, doom seemed inevitable as they underwent German soldiers’ inspections, and the resultant release — which the Rav attributed exclusively to focusing on ein od milvado — was nothing short of miraculous. Tapping into the higher consciousness that there is no power whatsoever besides the Creator lifts a person above all the perilous sources of fear and propels him into a realm where the only thing that exists is retzon Hashem.

Of course, it’s no simple feat to emulate the Brisker Rav. Harav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, once said that life’s journey has two roads: the super-fast highway and the slow, winding country road. The highway of life is gam zu l’tovah: recognizing that everything — but everything — is an expression of Hashem’s will and is thus for the person’s benefit. The low road, Rav Miller said, is gam zeh yaavor — this too shall pass: realizing that a negative situation — as painful, fearsome, or unpleasant as it may be — will eventually fade into the oblivion of history past. The preferred, more efficient route is gam zu l’tovah. But not everyone can navigate that path, so Hashem gave us another, workable route called gam zeh yaavor. But there’s no reason why anyone should have to resign himself to isolated mediocrity. Even while making use of lower-consciousness methods such as “this will also pass” or “if you’re scared, scare yourself some more,” we can remain cognizant of the fact that another approach does exist: the approach of gam zu l’tovah and ein od milvado. That awareness alone connects us to it and gives us a part in it. And, who knows, maybe, just maybe, we’ll sometimes manage to infuse a bit of that higher consciousness directly into our lives.