In Hope and Help for your Nerves, Dr. Claire Weekes describes first fear and second fear.
First fear is our reaction to a trigger, flooding the body with adrenaline. That white-hot flame of panic spreads from our middle to our chest, up the spine, down the arms and legs, to the tips of our toes. It signals the fight-or-flight response.
Second fear is caused by the thoughts we tell ourselves, adding more adrenaline to the mix; thoughts that start with “what if” and “oh my goodness!” They feed our anxiety, leading to “nervous illness.”
The good news is that adrenaline is short-lived. We can nip our anxiety symptoms in the bud if we take deep breaths, face the fear, tell ourselves this too will pass, and don’t add second fear to first.
I was answering the phone on the tenth floor of a law firm, my first afternoon on the job as a temporary receptionist for Kelly Girl Services (back in the day), when Mother Nature decided to give the high-rise a good firm shake. The massive jolt and rolling waves dislodged the lawyers from their offices, and they scrambled for the hallway.
“Earthquake! RUN!” One of them yelled in passing.
I stood up, told the person on the phone that we were having an earthquake, then ditched the receiver and lurched down the hall, cramming myself into the elevator along with everyone else. The building was swaying from side to side like some out-of-control carnival ride, and our flight instincts sent us straight into an upright coffin for twelve. Clearly, we were not thinking clearly.
Someone pushed the button. The doors whizzed shut. The elevator stayed put. We were trapped. A woman dropped to her knees and screamed, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” and sobbed hysterically.
The monster had arrived. It was ready to consume us all.
One of the lawyers punched the buttons like a crazy person and tried to pry the doors open. I clenched my jaw, my bowels, my toes, refusing to be hijacked by my rising panic, told myself, “I’m not going to die in an elevator with a bunch of strangers,” and hung onto that belief until the doors, miraculously, slid open.
We stumbled out, pushed our way to the stairwell, pounded down the steps—bam bam bam bam bam—nine flights to the lobby, spilled out onto the sidewalk, wobbled around in circles, stunned, until we found our land legs, and then scattered in all directions.
The earthquake lasted three and a half minutes.
The shaking hung around in my nerves a lot longer.
I never went back to that job. It would be years before I went back into that building.
Walt, a friend of mine who wore loafers without socks, who had sultry eyes and wore white shirts open at the throat, loved earthquakes. He would flatten himself to the ground, pressing every inch of himself to the earth so he could feel the undulations. He would ride that puppy like a bucking bronco. I don’t know how he managed it. I think it was his way of thumbing his nose at fear.
Not all of our fears are as big as earthquakes. They can be as small as a premature heartbeat.
First fear tells us to jump out of the way of an oncoming car, or run from a spider. It reminds us to “duck and cover” when the earth shakes, or punch those elevator buttons to open the door. Sometimes it gets confused, and tells us we’re having a heart attack when it’s really just panic.
Second fear screams, “you’re going to die” when panic hits. It warns of the dangers outside our homes and keeps us trapped inside. It convinces us that we can’t handle first fear, so we’d better not try.
The purpose of first fear is to keep us alive.
The purpose of second fear is to keep us from living.
Dr. Weekes advises this: watch the fear go up and down, ride it like a roller coaster. As long as you don’t prolong it by adding second fear to first, you’ll be reining it in within five minutes–the length of time it takes for adrenaline to fade–give or take.
I try to remember that, whenever the monster starts to feed.