This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Between my car accident in October and my mother’s passing in January, I’ve been having a lot more of those “how many bad things can happen” contests in my head.
You know what I’m talking about — where you’re driving through a perfectly calm intersection and, all of a sudden, you picture scrap metal and carnage everywhere. Or you want to go for a run but somehow know that this is the time you will turn your ankle at the farthest distance from home, be forced to move into a hollowed out tree, and subsist on berries and ground water until someone realizes you’re missing. My sister-in-law had one last night on the way to Rocky Point where she visualized her toddler falling off the pier into an angry and deadly ocean.
I realized that I was having more of these over a month ago and have spent some time doing hypnosis-based reframing exercises to help them move along. Out of my head. To go somewhere else.
Then I was watching a TED Vancouver talk from astronaut Chris Hadfield the other day when I was reminded of something I used to know well: there is a big difference between danger and fear.
Chris Hadfield starts the talk with the question, “What is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?” He then tells the audience that NASA is famous for knowing exactly how dangerous everything is: the chances of the rocket taking off properly; the chances of running out of oxygen; the chances that re-entry will be successful. Chris Hadfield knew exactly how dangerous everything he did at NASA was.
What NASA also does is train seemingly well-adjusted, intelligent people to sit on an enormous piece of dynamite and be hurled into an environment where humans can’t breathe on their own and unprotected eyes get sucked out of heads. How do they do that? Especially after they articulate for these people every single thing that can go wrong in aching statistical detail?
Well, according to Chris Hadfield, they practice. A lot.
They practice each thing they might need to do in space at optimum conditions. And then they practice at every environment in between all the way down to doing tasks in the worst possible scenario. It is through this consistent and repetitive practice that astronauts not only learn to distinguish danger from fear, but how to move past the fear to do what is necessary to survive even the worst case scenario. They learn to recognize the body’s response to something out of the ordinary — fear — and to know in their core that that feeling does not indicate the actual level of danger.
This is an important thing for all of us to know. It’s an important skill for everyone to have. Yes, it will help when those bad things really do happen, but it’s more than that. A big part of a fulfilling life is having different experiences. Some of those will have very little danger involved, sure, but even those less dangerous experiences can have a lot of fear attached.
For instance, someone never walking down a forest path in the spring as the green floor is coming to life and the leaves are returning to the trees due to their fear of bears. With a bit of bear aware information, these walks can be not only eye opening but truly soul nourishing. It would be a shame for someone to never experience one because of a fear attached to a much smaller danger (and one that can be mitigated).
Does this mean that I’m cured? No, but it does remind me of a coping mechanism that I used unconsciously for a large portion of my life. A mechanism that will be reintroduced post haste.
And, thanks, Chris Hadfield. I really appreciate the reminder.