“[The] only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd US president
You probably heard this quote or something similar and perhaps even wondered what this might mean. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he elaborates further with “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” And although he was speaking to a nation, he could have easily been speaking to all of us as individuals.
Fear is an emotion that is at the base of our existence. Our brains and extended nervous systems are tuned and highly reactive to fear, as it has driven animals to advance to where they are to this day. We humans are no exception. Imagine if you will hearing a rustling in a nearby bush. It could be nothing or it could be the stirrings of a predator. Those who were afraid and sought shelter survived just a little more often than those who had no fear or chose to ignore it (because every so often, it was a tiger in the bush, and now your genes will no longer be represented in the gene pool). Although most of us reading this text live in peace and general prosperity, we can’t ignore that fear plays a role in our lives. This fear is often what causes us to retreat from the path that leads to a happy life, when instead we should convert into advance.
“Some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” – Seneca
Neuroscience has shown in experiments what stoics like Seneca have preached for centuries; our habits are a product of a negativity bias that has develop during thousands of years of evolution (remember those who choose to interpret the rustle in the bush as a tiger) – negative experiences carry more weight. I’d like to focus on one aspect of this tormenting cycle in this article, namely, anticipation.
Experiments using brain imaging have shown that the anticipation of a painful experience and the actual experience are similar but distinct in the areas of the brain they activate. Anticipation activates areas associated with pain, as though it was similar to the pain itself. In the real world, we experience a great deal of anxiety in any impeding painful or negative experience. Although useful in a more threatening environment full of tigers, in a world of relative safety this intense anticipation becomes maladaptive.
Not only pain, but the anticipation of pain can alter your mood. It is believed that this anticipation of pain is relevant to the development of chronic pain disorders. Becoming tenser in the anticipation of pain will make pain often much worse. Think of someone telling you about a painful dental procedure in excruciating detail, and then slowly examining every instrument in preparation for the actual procedure, yikes. Conversely, distracting someone with questions or applying a heavy cognitive load (like counting back from 500 in steps of 7) can make the experience of receiving a shot relatively painless. Now the good news, if we gain control of our minds we can exert control on how we experience any number of negative situations.
We dread the anticipation of pain to such a degree, that we would volunteer to accept higher levels of pain immediately instead of having to wait for lesser pain. This was shown through an experiment where participants were asked to choose just that, higher levels of pain now or lesser pain delayed for a few seconds – isn’t science fun! 70% of participants preferred a more painful experience right away over waiting for a less painful experience; they just wanted to get it over with.
In life we may want to quickly rip of the bandage and simply get our pain and fears over with, but in the case of this experiment you would have been given perfect information about what you will be choosing – more pain right now or less pain after waiting. We rarely receive such a luxury in life, instead we are plagued with uncertainty, and this is where pain is bridged with fear. Uncertainty is ripe with fear. Anticipating a situation wrought with uncertainty is a tormenting experience, and leaves many people in a frozen state, anxiously waiting for some uncertainty to be resolved. Unfortunately the worse we feel, the greater the effect fear has on our mood and ability to take control over the negative effects of anticipation.
To this end, people suffering from major depression disorder experience pain differently. In an experiment comparing depressed patients with healthy controls, depressed patients showed more neural activation (via brain imaging) in response to the anticipation of pain. They also showed an increase in neural activation for experiencing pain, and a greater activation in the right amygdala (an area classical involved in fear responses) during anticipation of pain, which was associated with greater levels of perceived helplessness.
This is an example of a depressed brain being more active than a healthy brain, which is not always what we might assume when we think of being depressed. What this illustrates is also a mind that is overactive in the anticipation of negative experiences, and therefore bogged down in outward behavior. If you let fear, and particularly future fear, take control of your mind, you’ll often be frozen in state of agitation, expecting tigers when no such threat exists.
In the same letter to Lucilius (On Groundless Fears) as the above quote, Seneca quotes another great stoic, Epicurus: “the fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live”. Don’t let fear stop you from living. If you are free from pain and are safe, take a moment to enjoy what you have. If the future holds something grim, know that anticipating how grim it might be is worse than actually experiencing it. Do you want to exert some control over fear? Exercise your fears by grounding them. Name the fears, list them out; pull them into the light so you can see them for what they are. Allow your fears to be a trigger to go deeper into yourself, and you may find that you are simply waiting on something that may never come to pass. If you find yourself confronting the fear of anticipating uncertainty, then forgive yourself and your fearful ancestors, thank them for trying to keep you alive. Now, let that fear go. Stop getting ready to live and just live.
Ploghaus, A., Tracey, I., Gati, J. S., Clare, S., Menon, R. S., Matthews, P. M., & Rawlins, J. N. P. (1999). Dissociating pain from its anticipation in the human brain. Science, 284(5422), 1979-1981.
Welman, F. M., Smit, A. E., Jongen, J. L., Tibboel, D., van der Geest, J. N., & Holstege, J. C. (2018). Pain Experience is Somatotopically Organized and Overlaps with Pain Anticipation in the Human Cerebellum. The Cerebellum, 1-14.
Story, G. W., Vlaev, I., Seymour, B., Winston, J. S., Darzi, A., & Dolan, R. J. (2013). Dread and the disvalue of future pain. PLoS computational biology, 9(11), e1003335.
Strigo, I. A., Simmons, A. N., Matthews, S. C., Arthur, D., & Paulus, M. P. (2008). Association of major depressive disorder with altered functional brain response during anticipation and processing of heat pain. Archives of general psychiatry, 65(11), 1275-1284.
© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.