Tag Archives: fear

Is anxiety a choice?

Is anxiety a choice?

Is an anxiety disorder a choice?

Can a person choose not to be anxious?

Last night I had an interesting conversation with a stranger in the car park of my local supermarket. We’d exchanged a few pleasantries in the queue for the checkout – like me he refuses to use automated checkouts because, also like me, he’d much prefer that people keep their jobs.

We happened to have parked our cars next to each other on the way in and so the conversation continued in the car park, this time the subject was cars, driving and the rather nasty bump he’d had to the front of his vehicle. That conversation reminded me of today’s topic on anxiety.

Some time ago, one dark winter morning I found myself driving to work down unlit country roads in the rain. Visibility was poor and so I wasn’t going particularly fast which turned out to be a really good idea.

Also on the road on that dark, wet morning was a cyclist. A cyclist who was dressed in dark clothing with no lights and no helmet. To be honest I don’t even know how this guy might possibly have seen where he was going without lights – it really was that dark. However, presumably he could. I couldn’t see him though.

As I approached this invisible cyclist he pulled out into the middle of the road intending to turn right. You can guess what happened next. That’s why it’s such a good job I wasn’t going very fast. If I’d been driving at the legal speed limit instead of to the actual conditions I’d probably have killed him.

Fortunately, amazingly even he was OK apart from a few bruises. The ambulance came and took him to hospital where he was checked over. The police arrived and took my details, including my negative breath/alcohol test and I called in to work to explain that I wouldn’t be in that day. What happened next was revealing, especially about anxiety, phobias, avoidance and the ease with which normal freeze, flight or fight responses can become pathologies if we’re not careful.

My plan had been to return to work the following day. However within an hour or two of getting back to my accommodation I’d started to think. I actually believe that it would have been much easier to deal with the anxiety that followed if the accident had been my fault. If I’d done something wrong I could just decide to correct the flaw in my driving and make sure that nothing like this happened again. But that’s not what happened.

No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t think of any aspect of my driving that morning that I can change for the better. I hadn’t been drinking, I wasn’t going particularly fast, I was awake and alert, I was certainly concentrating due to the poor conditions, my car was in good condition and roadworthy and I was correctly positioned on the road. There was nothing I could think of to do that might prevent something like this happening again and if it does the next one might be fatal. That’s a really scary prospect.

It’s interesting that even though this is the first such accident I’ve had in over 30 years of driving all across UK, all that evidence of safe driving paled into insignificance against this one event. That’s because of a particular mental shortcut, an heuristic we know as the availability heuristic. I mentioned heuristics in an earlier video as part of my evolutionary psychology series. Click the link at the top of the screen for more information.

The availability heuristic is an evolved mental strategy that gives precedence to recent events. In a changing environment it’s useful – it allowed our ancestors to recall and give weight to the location of food, of predators and a whole host of other, changing environmental and behavioural artefacts. In the modern world it’s still extremely valuable but it has its drawbacks. One such drawback is the over-emphasis we give recent events. Here’s how it can turn useful anxiety into pathological disorders.

My emphasis on this single, recent memory caused me to work hard to find a way to avoid similar problems in the future. So far so good – we can all see the benefit of that. Unfortunately, the only thing I could come up with to avoid a repetition of this awful event is to stop driving. That’s rather less positive – especially in the light of the odds, bearing in mind my years, even decades of driving without hitting anyone, cyclist or not. But recent memories are the thing and that’s why I seriously considered not driving, giving up my job because I’d have no way to get to work without my car and I even spent time trying to rework my finances to allow me to retire early, all because I didn’t want to drive.

Now think about this. If I’d actually stopped driving that day what would my most recent driving memory be? Obviously it would be the traumatic memory of hitting, and initially thinking I’d seriously injured or even killed a cyclist. If that’s the result of the availability heuristic, the result of my most recent memory then my anxiety about driving will never dissipate. Not only that, the sense of fear I’d feel when contemplating driving, coupled with the relief I feel when deciding not to constantly reinforces the heuristic every time I think about getting back into the car.

Even though I know all this it took me three more days to pluck up the courage to drive my car again. I chose a quiet, sunny afternoon in broad daylight and drove around quiet country roads and literally had to force myself to turn the key and start the engine. That gave me a new memory but not enough to overcome the power of the traumatic heuristic. Powerful, traumatic memories take a lot of subsequent memories to take away the fear they generate. And the longer we avoid the issue the harder the trauma is to overcome. And that’s the point of this little video.

If you have an anxiety state that doesn’t seem rational, regardless of the emotion you feel, it’s important to ignore the emotion. Do this as soon as you can to build up new memories that can take advantage of the availability heuristic. That’s what people mean when they tell people to get back on the horse. Don’t let anxiety overcome rationality or you might find that your life choices become governed by fear to such an extent that avoidance shrinks your world, your opportunities and your options over time until there’s almost nothing left.

And it all begins when we give in to traumatic memories because of the availability heuristic.

Scary shit! I mean really scary!

I’m no stranger to driving. I cover around 1000 miles in my car on an average week and it’s not always in ideal conditions. In fact, over the years I’ve come to think of myself as pretty skilled behind the wheel – maybe that was the problem.

Last Friday night I found myself working in Poole, Dorset. For those that don’t know the geography of UK that’s a town on the South coast (the bit that looks out toward France). That’s about as far as you can get from my home in Cumbria without getting wet. I live in the North West of England, about 30 miles South of the Scottish border in a town on the edge of the English Lake District called Workington.

Normally it would take me around 7 hours to drive home from Poole. not such a big deal, even accounting for rush hour traffic. So I left work at a little after 4pm to travel back to Cumbria. I knew that there were bad weather warnings but I’d dealt with that stuff before. I’m a Cumbrian – we’re used to bad weather. Bring it on!

The snow hit when I was at about Warwick and it did slow the traffic down a bit. By the time I left the motorway (Jct 36 of the M6) it was midnight. That was a bit behind schedule but hey ho – no problem.

I had planned to follow the M6 motorway to Jct 40 and take the main road from Penrith. It’s a bit further to drive but it’s a better road. However the M6 was blocked at Shap summit according to the ‘matrix signs’ so I came off at Kendal instead. The plan was to stop at the Kendal travelodge because my good lady, Gill had already called to warn me about impassable lake district roads and I didn’t want to push my luck.

Alas – the road to the Travelodge was closed but there was a diversion into Kendal so I kept going. I could always double back to the travelodge from Kendal town centre. However the diversion took me to a dual carriageway with no way to double back. Oh bugger!

By now there was so much snow on the road that I couldn’t stop the car – I’d never have got it moving again. I was committed. I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t turn around. I just had to drive on. To stop would have meant a night in a freezing car with drifting snow and no telling how long I’d be there. Not a sensible option.

Of course a wise man would’ve stopped in Kendal but I’m no wise man.

So with 55 miles still to travel I soldiered on through the A591 – The ‘Lakes Road’. The Lakes Road is normally a beautiful, scenic route that takes in lakes, meres, quaint little towns and villages and, of course, stunning mountain passes. Stunning so long as you can see the bloody road!

With nobody but myself (and my own stupidity) to blame I soldiered on. I drove through Ings and Ambleside without incident. Admittedly I averaged around 15 miles per hour (and slowed down for the corners) but I got through. I even passed a deer on the road. I was going so bloody slowly it didn’t even run – it just stood there and watched me drive past. I passed the mini roundabout at Grasmere easily enough (yes even a mini roundabout feels like an obstacle in those conditions) and then I began to climb. I was driving up Dunmail Raise – the largest and steepest mountain pass on the Lakes road. And I still couldn’t see the road for the thick carpet of fresh snow that obscured my path.

Of course a wise man would’ve stopped in Grasmere but I’m no wise man.

Going up Dunmail wasn’t so bad. It was going back down toward Thirlmere that was the problem. The picture below shows you the view from Dunmail top to Thirlmere (the lake in the distance) but it doesn’t give you any hint of what it was like in the early hours of Saturday morning as I drove down the steep, narrow, winding road into the valley below.

Dunmail and Thirlmere

Then came the long road past Thirlmere – a terrifying combination of sliding tyres, sharp corners and dry stone walls. Not fun at all but nothing to the delights of Thirlspot hill to come. Another short climb out of the Thirlmere valley and the car literally slid down the next hill to Thirlspot. I had already decided to pull into the car park of the Kings Head Hotel at Thirlspot and wait until morning but there was so much snow I couldn’t see the bloody entrance. So on I went.

Next came Castlerigg – a beast of a climb that took every ounce of my driving ability. If I’d lost traction only once I’d have slid right back to the right angle bend at the bottom of the hill and a really memorable ‘prang’. Not a good plan.

But I made it to the top and started the descent into Keswick. Guess what I’d forgotten…. the right angle bend half way down the snow covered hill with the sheer drop to the lake below. Oh bugger!

‘Gingerly’ doesn’t describe the tentative way that I applied the brake until by the time I reached the corner I was doing a full 5 miles per hour and still sliding. Now that really was scary! As a young man I’d worked behind a hotel bar not far from that particular corner and I still remember the story of a tourist who took the bend too fast and effectively ‘flew’ into the fields below – hundreds of feet below. He died, of course – torn and twisted (as Meat Loaf would’ve put it) at the end of his undoubtedly spectacular ‘flight’. That memory was vivid in my mind as I wrestled the car around the tight corner and continued down the hill toward Keswick. Only another 25 miles to go.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the drive but it wasn’t pleasant (although the solway plain does have a somewhat more temperate climate once you leave Keswick). Suffice to say that I was glad to get home after 55 miles (and two and a half hours) of the scariest drive of my life.

The next day was Saturday and I slept until early afternoon before spending the day more than a little preoccupied. I had to do it all again on Sunday. Fortunately though about half an hour before I was due to leave for another 200 mile trip my boss Emailed – the meeting had been cancelled. To say that was a relief really doesn’t describe the sense of reprieve I felt. but that left me with another problem. I didn’t want to get back in the car at all. That’s how phobias start but there it was – I was really scared.

Then Monday came – today – and another 170 miles to South Yorkshire. I checked the weather (and the traffic reports) and all seemed OK so reluctantly I set off. And here I am in Rotherham – 4 hours from home and happy to have driven over the Pennines to get here. I’m not scared any more but by ‘eck – perhaps I should be.