You can study the psychology of fear until the cows come home; it’s not going to do much to keep your heebie-jeebies under control when you’re about to jump into a gap in six-foot-thick sea ice.
I shuffle closer to the edge of the five-by-five foot hole that’s been chainsawed into the ice. I have no real reason to be jumping into the frozen-over Hudson Bay. I’ve come up here for a totally different reason—to do a story about igloo building for a men’s magazine. But the trip’s organizers added a couple of extra days onto my itinerary so that I could get a taste for the local Inuit culture—riding on a dogsled, eating raw caribou meat — oh, and going scuba diving under the sea ice. Care to give it a try, Mr. Wise?
I couldn’t say no. Stunts like this are basically what I do for a living. I’m a magazine writer specializing in experiential adventures like skydiving, surfing, and survival training. Along the way, I developed an interest in the psychology of intense pressure and wrote a book on it. So though the idea of scuba diving under ice scares the crap out of me, that’s all the more reason I should do it.
And it does scare the crap out of me. Immersion in 32 degree water sounds bad enough, but to be trapped under six feet of ice as well? There’s a section of my book about how deadly that kind of thing can be. If a diver panics, the instinctive response is to rip away anything that blocks the airway – in this case, the regulator. In an enclosed space far from the surface, there may be no chance to recover from that mistake. Ironically, just knowing that the possibility exists makes it more likely to happen. “Well, let’s see how it goes,” I tell the organizers.
When the stakes are high, even world-class athletes can dramatically cave under pressure — the dreaded specter of choking. As I describe in my book, garden-variety choking is a catastrophic result of social fear, which causes all kinds of performers — from athletes to actors, and even ordinary people in the bedroom — to become painfully self-aware in a way that undermines the smooth flow of their well-practiced automaticity.
New studies from Europe, however, points to other ways in which anxiety on the playing field can cause athletes to screw up.
Remarkable news on the memory-erasure front. A team led by Elizabeth Phelps at New York University has published a report in Nature this week about a technique for wiping out unpleasant associations by taking advantage of a psychological process known as reconsolidation. A good deal of research has gone on lately into the erasure of unpleasant memories, with the goal of treating people suffering from anxiety and PTSD, but so far the focus has been on using drugs, as I’ve described earlier.
This kind of emotional memory is processed in the amygdala, a crucial hub for coordinating the brain’s response to danger. Fear memories can be problematic because, unlike the conscious, “explicit” memories that are formed via the hippocampus — things like the name of a friend, or the number of pints in a gallon — they do not fade with time in the same way. As I write in Chapter 10 of Extreme Fear:
The amygdala’s memory system retains frightening associations permanently. If you’ve been bitten by white dog, your amygdala will never forget. But the memory can get overlaid by a positive or neutral association. If you later buy a friendly white dog, say, and spend day after day associating your pet with harmless fun, in time your fear of white dogs will be overlaid by a suppressing response generated by the medial prefrontal cortex. Your amygdala isn’t forgetting that white dogs are dangerous, but you’ve laid a new memory on top of it, like a linoleum floor over a trap door. The old unconscious fear connection remains, encoded subconsciously in the amygdala. Under stress, the buried fear can spontaneously reemerge.
In her study, Phelps explored the effect on extinction of reconsolidation, an intriguing effect in which a memory that has been recalled into consciousness becomes temporarily malleable and subject to change. Previous experimenters have administered drugs, such as the beta-blocker propranalol, during the reconsolidation phase, and found that this can help erase painful memories. Phelps’ experiment was designed to see whether a similar effect could be obtained without the use of drugs. And the surprising answer was yes.
This footage was taken from inside the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose. In June, 1996, he was flying back to his base from a training mission when his engine failed with a loud bang. Here’s what happened next:
At the time of the accident, Rose was at an altitude of 13,000 feet, and above a layer of thick clouds. Immediately he turned in the direction of the nearest airstrip, at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. But where was it? With the help of his fellow pilots in the squadron he found his way through the clouds and broke out into clear air at 7,000 feet. From there, it was just a question of keeping his wits while nursing his damaged aircraft onto the runway.
What’s particularly interesting to me is the sound of Rose’s breathing, clearly audible on the tape’s audio track. While it sounds heavy — clearly the breathing of a man under stress — it’s not excessively fast. He was not on the verge of hyperventilation. If he had been, he might well have lost control and panicked.
If you’ve been unusually stressed out in 2009, here’s something else to fret about: Anxiety is not only an unpleasant emotional condition, it’s physically harmful. Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol weakens the immune system, disrupts the memory, and damages the cardiovascular system. Thanks to anxiety your life will not only be more miserable, but shorter.
That’s the case for most of us, at any rate. But a recent study carried out by researchers at King’s College London found out that among people suffering depression, those who suffer from anxiety as well actually have a longer life expectancy. “‘One of the main messages from this research is that a little anxiety may be good for you,” observed team leader Dr Robert Stewart.
In terms of the relationship between mortality and anxiety with depression as a risk factor, the research suggests that help-seeking behaviour may explain the pattern of outcomes. People with depression may not seek help or may fail to receive help when they do seek it, whereas the opposite may be true for people with anxiety.
To put it another way, anxiety can do you a lot of good when there really is something for you to be anxious about. Which is, I suppose, why evolution has bequeathed us with anxiety in the first place. Whatever its downsides, anxiety focuses our attention and motivates us to take action. If you’ve got a serious medical issue, and depression is demotivating you from doing anything about it, then a case of gnawing nerves is just what you need.