A Fear Feedback Loop

I’ve found myself fascinated by fear and pain lately, and it seems to dominate all of my thoughts, and all of my writings. Maybe it's the fear seeping through the cracks of my everyday life, maybe it’s the totalitarian regime that I witness fear holding over others, or maybe it is the stark realization that when everything begins to fade into a haze of reality or perception, fear seems to stand strong in the forefront of reality. I find the fascination revolving around the behavior that fear can change, or the worry that fear seems to attack us with in the middle of the night. The fascination circles, like a positive feedback loop  where I witness fear grow stronger and stronger. I find myself having to turn around and extinguish the flames that I stomped out into ashes before, because they seem to just keep coming back.

And this isn't a new battle for any of us, especially me. In fact, I’ve written about fear many times before. It seems that when the world transcribes to a theory of relativism, fear, and pain, starkly oppose. So I wrote myself memos, notes, and essays on battleground strategies to resolve this ever waging war. I watch worry consume those around me, and scribe stories to avoid it myself. I delve deep into a past epilogue of shame only to pinpoint key ideas that need to be held for the future, and all of this, all of this time I spend attempting to not let fear, worry, or pain control my life has led me to three conclusions: 1. Pain is inevitable, 2. The thing that we fear seems to bring more of the same fear to life. This fear does not help us prevent the thing that we fear from occuring, in fact it seems to do the exact opposite. And 3. The fear and pain that we feel as a consequence comes not from the situation itself, but from our desire to create permanence in an impermanent world.

I’ve written about conclusion 1 a few weeks ago, so I am going to focus on conclusion 2 and 3 here. There is a notion that I was introduced to a short while ago called a positive feedback loop. This occurs in situations where the stimuli creates a reaction, and the reaction then creates more of the stimuli, and in turn, that stimuli creates more of a reaction, and around and around. This is what occurs when a microphone and a speaker pick up feedback. The noise gets so loud, that it is picked up by the mic, and played through the speaker, which is picked up by the mic and continues the cycle until something else steps in. Another example of this in the real world is alcoholism. Something occurs, usually a type of pain (either physical or emotional) and you drink yourself to a point of numbness. Once the numbness begins to wear, more pain comes (in the form of a hangover), so you drink to avoid that pain. This pain comes as a side effect of drinking, but the alcoholic drinks more to postpone it. So the drinking causes the pain, and then the pain causes the drinking. And around and around.

A fantastic example provided to us in the book “12 Rules For Life”, is the feedback loop created by anxiety. We reach a situation where we get a bit nervous and have some fear of how it will turn out. This fear then initiates worry in us (anxiety). The anxiety begins to get overwhelming, convincing us of the inevitable negative outcome, which begins to produce more fear of the situation. The newly created fear gives us more reason to be anxious, and the now increasing anxiety continues to produce fear, which continues to produce anxiety. The fear creates the very thing that we fear itself, which in turn creates more fear.

An oddly counterintuitive conclusion, but maybe, our fears attract, or create behaviors that attract, the very thing that we are fearing. I used to rain down fears until they flooded my conscious like California in 2017. I had an overwhelming fear of being disliked, so I created a persona that I thought was impossible to hate. I was wrong, woefully so, and thus, I began to act out this persona that was so fake, so inauthentic that it essentially forced people’s hands into hating me. When I led the disaster response team, I had nightmares of bad leadership, and daydreams of being the axe the cut my team apart. I feared having an inefficient team, and being a bad leader so much, that I began to micromanage everything that occured, and behave in a way that led my teammates to resent me. Thus, I created an inefficient and bad team (which, I feel, I was able to self correct).

This positive feedback loop of fear is an everyday occurrence that we never seem to notice, but it has an impact on everyday of our lives. We fear a relationship ending, so we walk on eggshells afraid to upset our partner, and in turn bore them. Then the relationship ends. We fear our children getting hurt, and thus living incomplete lives, so we babyproof their surroundings and shelter them until essentially they aren’t living anymore. I have a crippling fear of returning home, for the sole reasoning of running into people that I used to know in High School. While I am not sure of the reason yet, I know that in the inevitable moments where I do meet someone from this past, this fear transforms me into a shell-shocked, silent silhouette, until I am a stuttering buffoon, unable to prove my fear wrong. This behavior leads to negative interactions, which proves me right in my initial distaste, and leads to me bunker down, only feeding the fire of fear more.

When I was 19, I began to attempt to put myself on a path of righteousness, I just had no idea where to start. I built great monuments of my pride, and read books that bounced buzzwords around my mind, but I was still bound to the shackles of my prior behavior due to fear. I used to fear failure, as if the idea of failing in life was the lowest pit in hell I could ever fall in to. I never noticed, or was unwilling to notice that this fear of failure sapped my creativity, my courage, and my need to grow. This led me to an inability to exit the oath that was already laid out for me, despite the realization and overwhelming knowledge to those around me that I was unhappy.  Fearing failure led to me behaving in stable, predictable ways, and also led to an inability to leave my comfort zone, to push, fight, and grow for the sake of growing. This fear of failure led me straight to failure, which, looking back, is bitterly ironic

When I was a Sophomore in Highschool, I had a teacher lead an exercise that he called the cure to anxiety. He had us divide a piece of paper into two horizontal sides. The left side was the side that identified things we could influence right now, and the right was things we currently had no control over. He then had us write down all of our current stresses into their respective boxes. As I began to fulfill this exercise, I realized that everything holding onto my psyche like weights, dragging my head down, all fit into the second category. I spent all of my days with a worry-filled cloud hanging over me, one filled with raindrops of future problems. Problems that I could do nothing about. It was then that I realized that anxiety is just worry about the future. An uncontrollable, unpromised future.

Worry, then, for all intents and purposes, is just a synonym for fear. We wouldn’t worry about a potential outcome if there wasn’t any fear or hesitancy involved. So if we’ve concluded that fear of a possibility does us very little good (except in certain situations, which is another topic), and worry is just another form of fear attempting to calm or ease the situation, but in turn makes us less-calm, why do we fear at all?

Of all of the literature I have read, I have come to what I believe is a reasonable conclusion: Fear is essentially just a hesitancy for change. We don’t want our lives to change in ways that we see unfit, so we panic at any chance that there may be a ‘disrupt’. I feel like I’ve beaten the point that change is a necessity to growth, so instead, I feel the need to focus on why, as in why is there this overwhelming feeling of hesitancy instead of us.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, despite being created in a time with a million differences than now, hold true even to this day. The understandings that life is a state of suffering, that suffering comes from desire, that to end suffering means to end desire, and the tools for accomplishing the end of suffering (or enlightenment) are understandings that need to be grasped. Life is a series of tragedies and breaks, there is no fighting that. But, the second truth, that this suffering stems from desire, is one to look at more closely.

All of the suffering that we feel is due to a desire for an outcome. We desire relationships to stay in favor, or people not to pass. We desire a new job, more money, a fancier car, or a certain mate. When these do not occur, our desire sets us up for suffering. Enter truth three: the way to end suffering is to end desire. If we stop desiring the things, such as unending relationships, new cars, loads of money, etc, then the suffering would cease as well. The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, understood that life is a revolving door of change, and trying to stop that door with all of our might, is what causes pain. He proposed, instead, to accept what the door brings in the moment, and also accept that, like its nature, the door will spin and fortunes will change. The only thing that we have is that moment in which we are living, not a guarantee on a future preset of happiness.

Another way to see this is to understand that we are fearing and worrying about things that we have no control over, and things that are not ours. We do not own this relationship, just the few temporarily moments that we are blessed to take part in it. We do not own a stable, secure life, just current stable, secure moments that could cease to exist any second. This is the same with cars, money, grades, jobs, achievements, and anything else. We are fighting for permanence in an impermanent world. Understanding that these, and everything else in life will end, eases the suffering when it does.

If we can just acknowledge and accept that all things are on an impermanent time loop, then maybe we can cease the worry, cease the fear, and cease feeling the sting of mortality when they end. If we could let go of this fear of potential change, then we could enjoy the moment and the things we have right now, instead of ruining the present moment by fearing for the what is by no doubt guaranteed in the future.

If we can just accept Marcus Aurelius’ line to himself, then maybe we can develop the strong resilience and devotion to pain that we talked about last week. If we can break the loop and see that: "Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight,” then maybe we can lessen our stress, lower our anxiety rates, and reach a more consistent state of fulfillment and meaning in life.