The Panic Button

Author: Julia Scott

When I think about how we come to fear, I think about a photograph my parents took of me as an 11-year-old. I’m in their bedroom, perched on the edge of their bed. It’s plenty warm in the house, but I’m dressed for subzero temperatures. I have on layers of clothes underneath my wool winter coat. I wear a bright pink ear-warmer headband above my ponytail and glasses, through which I stare out at the camera with a baleful expression. I am clutching a fire extinguisher.

I remember that my parents thought I looked adorable in my getup as I prepared myself for a notable first: They were leaving me alone, without a babysitter, to go out with their friends for the night.

They naturally assumed I would eat the dinner they’d prepared, watch some TV and go to bed. I naturally assumed that something would cause the house to catch fire and, despite my attempt at heroics with the fire extinguisher, I would end up in the snow outside, watching it burn.

I spent much of that evening on their bed, waiting for them to come home, the fire extinguisher propped up on a pillow next to me. Every so often I’d peer into the snowy street to see whether any strangers were approaching our front steps. I scurried upstairs and downstairs, my heart pounding, as I listened for sounds that seemed out of place — anything that could be construed as the first signs of a burglar who, I was sure, would choose this exact evening to try to break in. Whenever the refrigerator switched on or a truck rattled by, I jumped.

To say I was a needlessly fearful child is accurate, but it also diminishes the reality of my dread. I was certain that something bad would happen — soon — to me or to the people I loved. When my parents left me at home, I’d tell myself terrible stories that initially seemed plausible, then seemed inevitable, and then didn’t seem like stories at all — panic-inducing scenarios of my parents being assaulted on the street or getting into a car accident. The feelings produced by these fake storylines felt real. I was scared, and therefore I had reason to be. That was the feedback loop.

My mother would try to help me see my fictions for what they were by offering an alternative ending. She would stop what she was doing, sit me down and detail how safely their evening would play out, from dinner at the restaurant to the play they would see afterwards. She would never, to my frustration, commit to a curfew.

Frequently, she reassured me by pointing out the little doorbell installed on the left side of her bed. It was round and white to blend in with the rest of the wall and positioned about a foot above the telephone. The panic button, she called it. One push and it called the alarm company. The police would come to the house. Only use it in an absolute emergency.

This only confirmed what I had suspected: I had legitimate reasons to panic. I timed how long it would take me to run down the hallway from my bedroom and push the panic button. Sometimes at night I would creep toward my parents’ room, ease the door open, and tiptoe over to the bed to make sure they were still breathing.

 

The more we know about the world, the more there is to fear. I wish we talked about it more, but it seems that fear is the final taboo. We like to think we should be over our fears by adulthood — that we should be better, more perfect, more evolved. The opposite is true for me, and I’m convinced I’m not alone.

In my opinion, most adults carry around deep, sloshing cisterns of confusion, pain and fear. We move slowly and carefully, lest we spill a drop and expose ourselves. Our fears are among the few things that unite us, yet we suffer them quietly and alone.

“As far back as I can remember, every minute of life has been an emergency in which I was paralyzed with fear,” writes poet and essayist Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey.

Yet why is it that all we hear are stories about people who overcame their fears? Of public speaking. Of snakes. Of air travel. Of failure. Even of death. We celebrate these achievements. We talk about ‘conquering’ our fears as if they are a cancer — and as if there were a cure.

Until recently, all that talk of fear-squashing sounded pretty good to me. At 38, I still have much in common with the child edging toward the panic button. Many nights, I close my eyes and wonder whether this will be it. I live in Oakland, California, so my specific and immediate concern is whether tonight will be the night my apartment building will collapse on top of me. The Hayward Fault runs less than three miles from my home and is notoriously overdue for “The Big One.”

With the recent string of earthquakes in Southern California, it’s become even easier to imagine myself buried under rubble, suffocating, my back broken, unable to call for help. In other, more optimistic scenarios, I emerge from the building into the fresh hellscape of my neighborhood, bleeding and starting to walk toward the hospital.

When I drive across the bridge to San Francisco I am frequently seized by fear. Rather than admire the view, I think about an earthquake buckling the concrete and ripping the steel girders in two, sending my car straight to the bottom of the bay. I try to strategize: Should I bail out of the car while it’s falling? How long would I survive once the car hit the water?

It’s not just earthquakes that keep me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about all the potential ways catastrophic climate change will end life as we know it. But I may not be around long enough to witness that . . . because I also semiregularly convince myself I have a new terminal health condition. I wake up after a night of Googling and my search history is still open: “Early Stage Ovarian Cancer — Three Signs to Look Out For.” “When to Get Tested for Alzheimer’s.”

I am a treat at parties.

Just kidding — I don’t tell anyone I have these thoughts.

What’s worse, my thoughts no longer just poison my mind. I’ve started clenching my jaw in my sleep and had to get a tooth repaired. And this spring, I experienced my first panic attack in 15 years. It was such a nonsequitur that I didn’t even understand what was happening until later. One moment it was a beautiful Saturday, the next I was crumpled over on a bus-stop bench, nauseated, breathless and confused. How odd, I remember thinking. Why can’t I make this stop?

When I have a problem, I usually poll my friends. So I put a message on Facebook, asking them to volunteer some stories about their fears. Implicit in my asking was a hope that they would also tell me how they overcame them. Something I could pilfer and apply to my own life.

Clearly, I didn’t understand fear.

 

One of the people I talked to for this story — we’ll call her Morgan — had a terrible fear of heights. She would go to theme parks with her friends and watch people screaming with joy on the roller coasters, knowing how ill it would make her feel to climb up and strap herself in. She’d force herself to do it anyway. One day, when she was 19, it dawned on her that she could conquer her fear — and impress her motorcycle-loving boyfriend — by learning to fly propeller planes. She found a flying school at a local airport and signed up for 10 lessons on the spot.

“I set out to prove to myself that I could do something that scared the living shit out of me,” she says. “It was stupid and bizarre and harsh.”

Flying was more satisfying than she’d projected. With her instructor beside her in the cockpit, Morgan could force her attention onto the intellectual aspects of gauges and weather and how everything worked. She learned swiftly and built confidence. When her lessons were complete, she even let her instructor persuade her to fly solo. Morgan felt certain she’d be cured.

The day of her solo flight, Morgan tried to stay calm by telling herself the plane was just a machine — a car you drive in the sky. Taking off, she felt the fuselage give a tiny shudder and then she was airborne.

It was magic. She felt like Amelia Earhart. She was the one who had pulled that piece of metal off the ground and was circling in the sky.

Then she realized that she had to land. She tried to squeeze down her mounting panic by recalling her training. Rather than let herself think about crashing, she checked off every step, one by one. In the end, she made a perfect landing.

But Morgan was disinclined to celebrate. The moment she cut the engine, she knew she would never fly a plane again. Her fear of heights had returned in full force. Four decades later, she has come to accept that it will never go away.

People spend their days quietly coping with fear. “When an elevator goes up, my palms start to sweat. I can’t control it. I know it’s totally irrational,” says one man I know who developed some new fears in midlife but doesn’t tell people about them. Let’s call him Roger. He says going above the 20th floor is guaranteed to induce a panic attack.

Roger lives in a town with mercifully few high-rises. When he travels, he always requests a hotel room as low to the ground as possible. He also hates flying. He would rather drive eight hours than take a one-hour flight. He doesn’t know how these fears got started; they just happened. Today he copes with Xanax.

Another friend — I’ll call her Claire — traces her fear of heights to a trip to Italy she took three years ago. She was driving up a winding mountain road toward a cliff town to take in the view. After a lifetime of happily climbing to the tops of European castles, standing at the stomach-churning edges of canyons and exploring California’s mountains by car, something changed. The road was practically cantilevered over the sea. Every time she hit another switchback, it felt like she was about to tip over the edge.

Soon after that, she started to suffer panic attacks on mountain roads. Her palms and feet got clammy and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to hold on to the wheel or hit the brakes in time to save herself.

Then the claustrophobia set in. A year later, while hosting a party at her house, Claire accidentally locked herself in her bathroom. She had to remove the handle and jimmy open the door. She started avoiding bathrooms at cafés, especially the ones with heavy deadbolts. On airplanes she asks a flight attendant to please watch the door — she can’t bear to lock it.

Claire went to a psychologist who prescribed exposure therapy to help her fight her fears. No way was that going to happen, she says, so she, too, uses antianxiety medications. “I’m not over the anxieties, but my response to them is much more muted,” she explains. “As a woman, especially, I don’t want to lose my independence because of fear.”

 

I started out writing about “how we come to fear,” but I actually think it’s more accurate to say that our fears come to us. And if we can’t forestall them, what hope do we have for resisting their influence?

Security expert Gavin de Becker says that’s the wrong question. His book, The Gift of Fear — published in 1997 and still the most popular fear-advice book in a crowded marketplace — argues that fear plays an innate role in keeping us alive. In his professional experience helping people assess threats from co-workers, ex-partners and stalkers, de Becker believes that when it comes to predicting violent behavior in particular, fear sends us helpful survival signals that we too often choose to ignore. Instead, we should embrace the fear as a kind of intuition, a guide to predicting that something bad will happen.

But here’s the catch: The helpful kind of fear, he says, is short-lived and rare. And it really only helps us avoid unexpected dangers like an assault, not the things some of us have feared for years, like earthquakes or heights or being trapped in enclosed spaces.

“Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition,” he writes. “But though few would argue [with the notion] that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to live there.”

De Becker distinguishes between useful fear (which manifests when we’re threatened) and useless fear. He points out that in a life-threatening crisis, fear is often the last thing we feel. Claire can attest to this. She has been held up at gunpoint, and she’s been in car accidents. She stays calm and enters a state she calls “taking-care-of-business mode.” I’ve had similar experiences after car accidents. The terrible thing has happened. You accept it immediately and launch into problem-solving. Fear is absent.

According to de Becker, that’s not authentic fear. It’s worry. ‘Worry is the fear we manufacture,’ he says.

“The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening,” de Becker notes in a neat turn of phrase. “If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it.”

So, what’s happening to me when I startle awake at night, trembling, my heart pounding so hard that I mistake the sensation for my bed shaking in an earthquake?

According to de Becker, that’s not authentic fear. It’s worry. “Worry is the fear we manufacture,” he says.

When I read those lines, I frowned at the word “manufacture.” I doubt the people I interviewed would say they’ve manufactured the burden of their fears.

But de Becker insists that remaining in a state of fear — like a car alarm that won’t shut off — is a choice, and it is more dangerous than we think, because it often leads to panic. It could even cause more harm than the fear itself.

Too bad fear and worry feel the exact same way in our bodies — like an existential threat.

This makes perfect sense on a physiological level, says journalist Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project. That shot of cortisol that makes me gasp at night is a symptom of the classic fight-or-flight response that Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon first characterized in 1915. We’ve all experienced the rest of them: dilated pupils, tensed muscles, elevated heart rate.

These symptoms are governed by the amygdala, which has been protecting us since early hominids faced down saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. Unfortunately, our amygdalas have not evolved with the times. I can set mine off reading a scary headline on my smartphone.

“By the time you can say ‘I’m afraid,’ your body is already well into the stress process,” Yogis writes. We have no medium setting built into our bodies for medium-sized scares. It’s just an on/off switch. There’s no going back once you’ve hit the panic button.

Over time, chronic anxiety can translate into devastating physical disorders like pulmonary disease and cardiovascular problems. It can disrupt the central nervous and endocrine systems, flooding the body with stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn contribute to all manner of issues with sleep, weight gain, diabetes and, yes, even teeth-clenching at night.

What of this idea, then, that we can choose a better way? De Becker offers three behavioral tips that underpin his philosophy of grappling with dreaded outcomes.

1) When you feel fear, listen.

2) When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3) If you feel yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

“Worry will almost always buckle under a vigorous interrogation,” he writes triumphantly, and you can almost see the sheriff’s badge gleaming on his chest.

But the problem with all our fears is that they tell good stories. The plots may vary, but the core message is unsettling. It’s about uncertainty, about our profound lack of control over our lives, on this planet, in this universe. Objectively speaking, potential disasters are everywhere — epidemics, asteroids, drunk drivers. They could strike us down at any time. Our nervous systems keep us aroused, sniffing the air for the next threat. And when you see it that way, it makes sense to stay vigilant for all of them.

“Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty,” says de Becker. When we can’t predict something, we can’t prepare for it. We’re forced to admit there’s nothing we can do. Welcome to the human condition.

Sometimes, our fears also depend greatly on context. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears offers a fascinating snapshot of just how much our fears and anxieties can change over time based on the media zeitgeist — and which ones abide, year after year.

In 2016, for instance, three of the 10 most prominent fears Americans cited were terrorism, gun control and Obamacare — all major themes of the presidential campaign.

In 2017, according to the survey, Americans widely feared getting into a nuclear confrontation with North Korea — at a time when the Trump administration’s nuclear brinkmanship and “fire and fury” threats were constantly in the news.

In 2018, for the first time, five of the top 10 fears were about destruction of our environment: contaminated drinking water; the pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers; bad air; the mass extinction of flora and fauna; and global warming. At least now I know I have company.

What I find most interesting, however, are the three universal fears that climb to the top of the chart every year and sit there, unmoving, like Dante’s shrieking harpies perched in the tortured wood. Two are closely connected: the twin fears of a loved one becoming seriously ill and of a loved one dying.

The third is the consistent number one thing we Americans fear: the behavior of corrupt government officials. Regardless of party affiliation, it seems people most fear government malfeasance.

That may seem odd, but to the worrier, all fears have their own logic. Mine are no exception. The Hayward Fault will definitely erupt . . . sometime. The climate crisis is here, and it’s going to get worse. And everyone dies of something, whether it’s cancer or a wrong turn off a steep mountain road.

How are we supposed to handle ourselves in the meantime? This is as much a question about living, I’ve come to realize, as it is about coping with life’s less appealing features: uncertainty and lack of control.

For me, catastrophizing — thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen and letting my mind deal with the consequences — offers a kind of perverse comfort, the promise of tussling with my fears and shoring up my resilience to suffering. The trouble is, I never actually escape the fear loop. I’m never really reassured. And this minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour anxiety drip becomes its own eternal wellspring. Anyone who has a history of panic attacks will tell you that the fear of having one can be enough to set the next one off.

“In terms of fear of heights or flying, what I actually fear is the feeling of panic, of being trapped and unable to get away, and how I’ll act and feel. Not so much crashing. So that you begin to fear the fear,” says Roger, the man who avoids flights and elevators. Fear will just metabolize itself after a while.

 

I sometimes think about my young self and wonder what happened to me. Why wasn’t I more resilient? Did my parents not cultivate my independence? I’ve started wondering about how much our early development and even our personalities shape our viewpoint when it comes to risk and fear. When I was 11 and facing a night alone, I perceived those parentless hours as a harrowing ordeal. But some other kid might have turned them into an escapade, watching off-limits TV channels and gorging on junk food all night.

I am acquainted with people who go through life assuming that everything will be OK. And even when it won’t, they see no point in worrying about it, because there’s nothing they can do to prevent bad things from happening. My grandmother, for instance, had a favorite expression: “What is, is.” She held tight to those words amid several life-changing setbacks, and lived to age 96. I envied her disposition, but I will never be like her. My version of resilience involves planning for the worst, even though I know it’s an endless iteration.

So I’ve been looking for a third way — a middle path. When someone recommended I read The Places That Scare You, a book of Tibetan Buddhist teachings by Pema Chödrön, I resisted at first, even though I have my own flailing meditation practice. I worried that she would tell me that fear is an illusion or something equally trite.

But unlike Gavin de Becker, Chödrön doesn’t claim we can ditch our long-term fears. She says they’re part of the human condition. Chödrön describes fear as something we learn early and often — it’s a product of circumstances that “harden us” until we become resentful and afraid, she says.

We can ease fear’s grip by opening ourselves up, over time, to what hides beneath: tenderness and vulnerability. She says these two qualities could take us a lot further in life, but most of us have bricked them off and poured concrete over the wall for good measure.

“Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect,” she writes. “Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it’s what we need to do.”

Rather than waiting for our fears to overtake us on their schedule, she suggests we acknowledge their shrieks and look up at the branches where they perch in our lives every day. That we get to know them.

We’d rather do almost anything else. I know I would. I would rather numb myself watching YouTube far into the early morning hours than spend another night facing whichever fear asserts itself.

Chödrön says that tendency only makes things worse. “Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but in getting to know them well,” she writes.

I am trying. Sometimes when I’m fearful now, I let myself acknowledge how it feels — I’m scared. This is scary.

Other times, I try to bring some of my reporter’s persona to the moment and become curious — an approach Chödrön mentions in the book. Asking “What’s really happening here?” and “What’s under this feeling of panic?” can yield results. It’s possible my presumption that I have a terminal disease has something to do with my deeper fear of failing at life, of not having mattered at all. Maybe my horror of earthquakes is tied to a distasteful reality I’d rather avoid: the impermanence of this life I’ve built, and having it taken away from me.

But the problem with all our fears is that they tell good stories. The plots may vary, but the core message is unsettling. It’s about uncertainty, about our profound lack of control over our lives.

I no longer shake my head at that little girl who sat on the edge of her parents’ bed, sweating in too-much clothing, eyeing the panic button. She had a certain wisdom. Deep down, she sensed a truth her parents couldn’t refute: Life is uncertain and few things are within our control.

Fear seemed like the best way to handle that news at the time. I’m hoping it’s not too late to learn another way.

I also regularly give in to — and I’m not sure Chödrön would approve of this — the exigencies my fears demand. Last year, I purchased two heavy, fully stocked earthquake-emergency backpacks. I stashed them in my car and my apartment. I bought two more for my parents for Christmas. (They were confused.) I also treated myself to a shiny new fire extinguisher, even though my old one was not expired.

The friends I talked to all choose to be out in the world despite their fears. But their lifestyles are limited, and the do’s and don’ts are a process to be managed, constantly. Claire still likes to explore steep mountain roads, but only those with a barrier. She feels sick when she’s obliged to drive over a long bridge, but she can handle it if someone else, like a bus driver, is at the wheel.

Morgan attributes her fear of heights to a childhood wound that never healed. Some things she simply won’t do, like roller coasters and downhill skiing. But she’ll climb a mountain for the beauty. It’s hard to do — sometimes really hard — but there’s simply no other way to enjoy the vista. When I asked her how she overcomes her fear, she gently corrected me.

“I have found of myself that a surrender practice is the best. It’s not a conquering, or a getting over, or a getting away from,” she said. “And climbing a mountain is another form of that surrender practice.”

We can keep ducking our fears, but at a certain point they prevent us from seeing the view. I could leave Oakland, but I love my tranquil apartment, my neighborhood, the white-blossom magnolia tree in the courtyard, and the patio where I can contemplate its flowering while I meditate. So I choose this.

“What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth — of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked,” writes Mary Ruefle.

Bad things will happen. To me and to the people I love. To the planet, and the creatures on it that don’t have a voice. I know this to be true. But something good could happen, too: the type of alternative ending my mother tried to teach me to construct. With all my planning and preparing for the worst, I have little space to imagine an actual future. The version of the story in which I go on living — not because of my fears, but despite them.


Julia Scott is a writer and radio producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Best American Science Writing, and on the BBC World Service.