The fear of fear

At issue is whether we allow ourselves to be intimidated by the very things that we naturally fear the most.

Illustrative (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fear stops us from enjoying our lives. It changes the quality of our day-to-day existence.
As an example, consider terrorism, which exists to put fear into the hearts of an enemy. The perpetrators warn the world that it must succumb to their authority or live in fear of their unpredictable assaults, for eternity. How successful it is depends on us.
The saying “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” a favorite quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt, may now be a cliché, but it is true 50 percent of the time.
Constant worry impinges on our life when we feel out of control. Clearly we cannot regulate everything in our lives.
At issue is whether we allow ourselves to be intimidated by the very things that we naturally fear the most.
Years ago I was on a flight from New York to Los Angeles when the plane lost power. It was terrifying. The nun sitting next to me was holding on to me, praying, and I was hugging her in what felt like my last moments of life. The plane, after many drops in altitude, somehow stabilized and the rest of the flight was uneventful.
The pilot never explained what had happened. When I got off the plane in Los Angeles I fell into my husband’s arms, sobbing. I knew I would never get on a plane again.
That was really not an option. Our business required frequent trips to New York and Europe. It took some time before my husband made me face the fact that I was afraid of the fear that I experienced when we were plummeting. I agreed that I was not afraid of death itself, but of the terror I experienced knowing I was unable to change my fate. I forced myself back into a state of self-control in order to continue my life. Even today, when I experience turbulence, my mantra is: “This, too, shall pass.” I repeat it over and over until the calm returns to the flight.
The subconscious seems to hold onto negative experiences.
In 1994 we were at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake. Once again, the trauma of my erupting environment became programmed into my cells. From that point forward, when the earth shakes beneath me I become immediately aware of how we must fight the natural instinct to flee.
There seem to be two kinds of fear. One is justifiable. One is not. That feeling that we are unable to control the present and the future is when our fears take hold. Terrorism, because of its unpredictability, is intended to make us afraid of our enemy.
It empowers the evildoers beyond their actual ability to touch our lives directly.
The odds of our being in the wrong place at the wrong time are small, as are the chances of being on a fatal flight or severely harmed in an earthquake. I survived the flight and very few people were harmed in the Northridge quake. Looking at the mathematical improbability of a danger can be helpful indeed.
At a recent press conference Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat answered journalists’ questions about the danger of living in the capital in the current situation. He responded with facts, not emotion. He asked us to look at the murder rates in major American cities. The US as a whole has nine murders per 100,000 population per year. New York has four per 100,000.
Chicago has 10 per 100,000. And Jerusalem, one of the locations most feared by world travelers, has only 1.5, even with all the news coverage and horrific attacks the country has endured. Hard facts are valuable tools in this personal challenge.
When we allow fear to take hold, it impacts on every life choice we make.
It is necessary for us to step back from the things that frighten us. When it is possible to make a concrete effort to “take control” of a given situation, our fear then recedes. When we do everything we can to make our child safe or when we are involved with the care and decision-making of those who are ill, our fears take a back seat to our participation in the process.
When we avoid situations that make us feel vulnerable, we begin to improve our emotional security. Small actions such as standing back from a crowded bus or train stop, waiting until large crowds disperse before standing in an entrance, or becoming aware of unusual behavior by individuals improve our sense of well-being.
Good decision-making as to where we will vacation and how we will travel on a daily basis are important. When we become a conscious participant in our own security, we strengthen ourselves and hence reduce our fear levels accordingly.
When taken to an extreme, fear can become a phobia. My father, of blessed memory, served on a submarine in World War II. A failure in one of the ship’s systems forced him to be locked in a small space for a substantial amount of time.
Subsequently, he became uncomfortable in any situation from which he could not physically remove himself. The problem burgeoned and manifested itself throughout his life.
His inability to fight the fears that had built up inside his mind was debilitating.
A business card for a phobia clinic was posted on his kitchen wall for many years. He was also afraid of curing his fears. His ultimate fear of becoming well again limited his life experiences. It meant that he never stepped onto an airplane or a boat again. He missed seeing our home and business in California and his grandson’s bar mitzva. The saddest part of it all was that he was an ardent Zionist who never set foot on the Land of Israel – unfortunately, it wasn’t within driving distance.
Well-meaning friends abroad feel compelled to send me every doomsday article they read. It is their way of participating in the future of the State of Israel. Just in case we have not experienced the issue firsthand, they wish to warn us of a particular impending danger. They need to send the articles, and I need to leave them unread in my inbox with 2,000 other such emails that have fear-evoking titles.
While we need journalists who tell us the “truths” about our neighborhood and our place in world opinion, we need to take responsibility for the amount of time we focus on this diet of fear.
In the process of controlling the percentage of our lives that we spend on the positive vs the negative, it becomes within our power to thus determine the quality of our lives.
Frequently, visitors to this country ask me, “Aren’t you afraid to live in Israel?” My response is always “No.” As one gets older, it is easier to accept that our fate is not always in our hands. Our actions can improve or diminish the risks for our safety and that of those we love. Nothing assures our destiny, in spite of our best efforts.
Life affords us no guarantees at all. If we can take control of our participation in our future – whether it be our health, our relationships, our finances or our security – the fear recedes. This is critical not only for our own mental health but for the quality of life of those we influence, both friends and family.
A “fear of fear” itself is overwhelming.
It can be reduced greatly, first by acknowledging its existence, and then by making sure it does not control our lives. 
The writer is a member of the Jerusalem Press Club and several international pro-Israel organizations. She hosted Barbara Diamond: One on One on Israel’s Radio West and London’s Spectrum Radio.