• Debbie Russell

Irrational Anxiety and Fear - why me?

Have you ever wondered why you feel fear in some situations but not others? Have you found that your anxiety has got worse over time, whether it’s to do with social situations, public speaking, flying, spiders, getting on a bus, or even just going outside? Sometimes, what seem to be irrational fears can impact on our lives in a big way, and leave us feeling terribly frustrated when we can't explain or prevent them without help. Here's a real example:

I kept noticing that my palms were sweating, I was holding my breath, I had a knot in my stomach, my shoulders and neck were tensed to the point of pain, and I was glancing around to make sure I could see a quick way out just in case my slightly nauseous feeling got any stronger…

…But hang on a minute - I was totally safe, trusted friends on either side of me, warm and comfortable, well fed and watered - what on earth was going on?

Well… Last year, Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber who I have never met and until now didn’t know existed, and who certainly doesn’t know me, scaled El Capitan - a 3000 ft rock face in Yosemite National Park, without ropes or harness, any artificial hand or foot holds, or a parachute.  ‘Free Solo’ (1) the film of his preparation and the climb itself, was recently released… and I was sitting in a cinema seat watching it.

Even though I knew that Alex had succeeded (I’d read the news report at the time) and that I myself was sitting safely in my seat in no danger whatsoever, I felt afraid.  I could barely watch, as he clung by his fingertips and the points of his shoes to hand and foot holds so tiny I struggled to see them even on a huge cinema screen.  I knew that one false move or miscalculation, or split second loss of concentration would result in his certain death.  He kept this up for just short of 4 hours - mercifully for me the film itself was a lot shorter than that, only showing those parts of the climb that the crew were physically able to film from the safety of fixed ropes and harnesses.  

Nevertheless, on leaving the cinema I felt exhausted and a little shaky, and it wasn’t just me - everyone around me was expressing the same reactions - “Wow that was scary!”, “He must be crazy!”, “I need to calm down after that!” and a general sense of bemusement, as if we were all coming out of some kind of trance… Why?

 “There is no adrenaline rush…if I get a rush something has gone horribly wrong…” says Alex. So why for me and my safely seated fellow viewers, but not for him, the one actually experiencing the danger?

At one point in the film during his preparation, we saw Alex wired to a brain scanner showing an image of his brain activity on a screen, and being shown ‘anxiety-provoking’ images: a ship sinking, a car accident, gruesome injuries and the like. The doctor informed him that for the vast majority of people, their amygdala (the ‘fear centre’ in the brain) 'lights up' on the screen showing intense brain activity when they look at these images - not his - it remained virtually inactive.  

The amygdala is in a primitive area of the brain in evolutionary terms, and all animals have it - it's what tries to keep us alive in situations we perceive as dangerous or threatening, by getting us to act automatically to fight off or run away from the danger without having to stop and think through all the options and consequences - the ‘fight or flight' response. Of course if neither fighting nor fleeing is an option then we will simply 'freeze' like a rabbit in the headlights. In short, the amygdala puts us in a kind of trance where we can’t ‘think straight’, only ‘act fast’ or not act at all. The brain then ‘learns’ to be on the look out for similar dangerous situations so that we can avoid getting into them in the future.

So, what’s happened to Alex? Most of us would perhaps think there must be something wrong with this guy…?

Well, it’s debateable that risking his life like this is ‘wrong’ (What about the impact on his family, his girlfriend, his friends? What about inadvertantly encouraging others to try to copy him? ) Indeed the film portrays the crew’s (who are also his good friends) ambivalence and soul searching about filming him doing the climb, and their efforts to film as safely as possible. It also portrays his girlfriend’s struggle to remain encouraging and supportive in the face of his obvious determination to continue, and her and everyone else’s obvious anxiety for his safety…

Was Alex born with a ‘faulty’ fearless amygdala? Or had he somehow managed to subdue it to enable him to calmly do something incredibly dangerous?

The fact is, Alex had done hundreds of climbs both with and without ropes before his attempt on El Cap. He had already climbed El Cap itself many times with ropes and safety gear, and had memorised each move. He explained that he researches and practices each move in minute detail over and over again, and that he uses his imagination to visualise and rehearse successfully making those moves, one after the other until it has become virtually automatic.

This is an extreme example of ‘neuroplasticity’: he literally re-wired his brain over 20 years of climbing, gradually building a ‘tolerance’ to fear which has enabled him to achieve some incredible feats, like climbing El Cap solo. A quite literal demonstration of the old adage: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

So, this might explain why Alex doesn’t experience the physical symptoms associated with fear when climbing, but it doesn’t explain why I and others do when we watch him on a cinema screen. We are not in a threatening situation - so why are we afraid?

The fear that I feel sitting in that cinema seat is irrational - there’s no need for it. This man is a complete stranger to me, why should I feel worried for him? I am not clinging to an exposed rock face 1000's of feet in the air, why should I worry for my own safety? My neocortex (that's the most recently evolved part of the human brain that’s responsible for logic and rational thought) is trying to tell me all this.  But in that moment, my amygdala is having none of it - and the fear symptoms are there.

Even sitting here now writing this a few weeks later I’m getting some mild symptoms just thinking about and remembering the images from the film, as if I’ve been mildly traumatised by the experience.  That’s because the brain is a pattern matching organ - its already ‘learned’ loosely what kind of things should switch on the anxiety response and release adrenaline into my body.  Here’s the thing - the key word here is loosely.  My amygdala is loosely pattern matching to previous experiences of being somewhere high without safety equipment, and triggering off the emotions that it attached to those experiences.  Never mind that I’m safely sitting in a cinema, or at my desk in front of my computer - my amygdala doesn’t notice that - it signals to the rest of the brain that I’m in danger, and to trigger off the tensing, the fast, shallow breathing, the sweaty palms and the rest, to get me ready to fight, flee, or freeze.

The important thing to remember is that this is normal. It's just my amygdala doing its thing, and just by remembering this, focussing my attention on the present moment, where I know I am safe, and using breathing techniques, I can reduce those symptoms so that I feel ok.

But it just shows how powerful the emotional part of the brain can be, and how it can overwhelm the logical, rational part pretty easily.

Irrational fears can start to get in the way of life, and eventually become really debilitating, leading to phobias, social isolation, and obsessive compulsive behaviour.  But with help they can be resolved by learning to understand and challenge them, and by learning to visualise doing what we fear successfully.  We can come out the other end with feelings of not just relief, but of achievement, excitement and even joy.

Eleanor Roosevelt said “Do one thing every day that scares you”.  I wouldn’t recommend attempting to climb a 3000 foot cliff on your own (or at all!), but the same principles apply whatever you’re afraid of. Even if you just experience anxiety without really knowing why - with the help of a therapist you can learn to understand why you think and feel like you do, and to ‘re-wire’ your brain to focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t want, to learn new more helpful patterns, to access both the logical part of the brain to challenge irrational fears and the emotional, creative part of the brain to visualise and rehearse success.

One more thing: “One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do. Basically, some people’s brains lack what (David) Zald describes as “brakes” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means some people are going to really enjoy thrilling, scary, and risky situations while others, not so much.” (2)

Perhaps this explains why some of my fellow cinema-goers were laughing as they came out alive, while others were nearly crying…

At the time of writing, you can listen to a Radio 4 podcast of Alex Honnold talking about climbing and fear, overcoming social anxiety, his drive to perform, and his use of visualisation/imagination to rehearse success at:

(1) Free Solo - Little Monster Films/National Geographic/Parkes+MacDonald Image Nation (2018)

(2) Allegra Ringo, 31/10/13 The Atlantic

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