The Jeff Wise Blog

How Fear Destroyed a Career

Up until three weeks ago, Tom Durkin was hard at work, studying for the upcoming running of the Kentucky Derby. For a decade he had been the voice of “the greatest two minutes in sports,” calling out the position of the horses as they round the turns and approach the finish line. To prepare, he spent weeks memorizing the horses and their liveries and studied videos of other races around the country. But as the big day drew near, his anxiety began to soar. He was assaulted by waves of panic that sent his heart racing. It was not a new feeling; Durkin had been battling performance anxiety for years. This time, however, he realized that he was up against an emotional turmoil he could not handle. And so, the New York Times reports, he called up race officials and tendered his resignation. An impressive career, cut short.

Reading the story, I felt compassion for Durkin, who had fallen victim to one of fear’s most agonizing and intractable manifestations. And I wondered how many other careers have been cut short, or held back, by runaway fear. You don’t have to be a performer to suffer from performance anxiety – anyone who has to give talks before an audience, or even speak up at meetings, is at risk of a debilitating attack of stage fright. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, ,

I’m Worried That You’re Not Worrying Enough

Worrying sucks.  Not only is it unpleasant, but also often quite useless, as your brain finds itself hijacked by ruminations about some future event that you may not be able to do anything about anyway. (Here it is, a beautiful day in early spring, and instead of paying attention to the blossoms on the cherry tree I’m stewing in thoughts about neuroscience…)

As I’ve written about earlier, however, worry isn’t all bad. Last year a team of researchers in England recently found that depressed people who suffer from anxiety as well actually have a longer life expectancy from those who are depressed but not anxious. Mused team leader Dr Robert Stewart,  “a little anxiety may be good for you” because it leads sufferers to reach out and seek help when they need it.

Now a new study provides more ammo to the worry-is-good camp and suggests another mechanism for its benefits. Fretting, it seems, can help counteract that activation patterns that depression tends to elicit. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety

The Irony of Road Fear

It’s nearly upon us: the centenary of America’s first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, conceived by entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher in 1912. That means we’re also about ready to start celebrating another major anniversary: 100 years of dreading driving on the highway.

Rich Presta, a Wisconsin therapist who specializes in the fear of driving (UPDATE: See note below), says that when he asks his patients what part of being on the road scares them the most, the most common answer is the highway. (A close runner-up is bridges.) In a sense, their loathing of the highway isn’t wholly irrational. Each year, some 5,000 people die in crashes on interstates. But Presta points out that what drives people’s fear isn’t a reasoned assessment of the risks. “Certainly, people do die on the roads every day,” he says. “But the chances of you being involved in an accident on any particular day, and it happening the way you’re imagining it in your head, is pretty darned remote.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety

For Athletes, New Ways to Fail

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, Mastering Fear, Social Fear, sports, , , ,

How Breathing Can Lead to Panic

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.

The connection between breathing and self-control has been recognized for centuries, but only recently has a scientific connection between the two been identified. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, Aviation, Mastering Fear, Research, video, , , , ,

Feeling Anxious? Congratulations!

Anxious, depressed, or both?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.

Filed under: Anxiety, Threats, , , ,

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise