Be Very Afraid of Being Too Afraid

I am a worrier. I worry constantly about things that other people seem to just take in stride. I worry about the things that could go very wrong in my life, and what I can do to pre-empt or mitigate them.

At different times in my life, I have worried intensely about:

  • Being unemployed
  • Dying alone
  • My wife and I not being able to have kids because we waited too long
  • My children not being adequately prepared for the future
  • Being plagued by serious health problems in my later years

When I meet other people who don’t seem as worried about the above, I just don’t understand how they manage to go through life without confronting the above concerns. These are very serious risks that impact tens of millions of people, every single year. And without proper planning, you too will be a statistic.

And yet, the people around me seem to think that I am a happy-go-lucky person. The irresponsible risk-taker. The one who lives life care-free. Why? Because I never worry about the things that everyone else obsesses over.

I’ve never worried about:

  • Spending a month backpacking across Europe and staying at hostels, completely alone
  • Driving cross-country and flying on airplanes
  • Terrorist attacks or mass shootings
  • Earthquakes or lightning strikes
  • Losing money on long-term index funds

Which is not to say that none of the above ever happens.
Men have been kidnapped or robbed or worse, while traveling alone.
Airplane crashes and fatal car accidents happen regularly.
Thousands of people have died in terrorist attacks, mass shootings and ebola outbreaks.
And many more have died of earthquakes or lightning strikes.
Many people have seen lower returns in the stock market, as compared to real estate or bonds.

There are people out there whose job is to worry obsessively about each of the above. Plane manufacturers worry intensely about defects in their design. Civil engineers worry intensely about earthquake-readiness. Doctors worry intensely about pandemics. I am very thankful for their efforts, and acknowledge their significant contributions to society.

And yet, I do not work in any of the above careers. No one is benefiting from my phobia of lightning strikes. And so, I do not worry about them. And more importantly, I refuse to be cowed or to change my lifestyle on account of them. Not because they can never happen. But because they are sufficiently unlikely. And because living your life in fear comes with very real costs of its own.

The Cost of Fear

For one, fear prevents you from doing things that could have benefited you. Sometimes, in ways that are truly meaningful. My solo travel through Europe was one of the transformative experiences of my life, and opened my eyes to the world’s beauty and depth. My long-term investments in index funds have turbo-charged my savings, and allowed me to retire decades earlier than I could have otherwise. My pursuit of career opportunities, despite my less-than-certain status as an immigrant, allowed me to grow my career in ways I never could have otherwise.

It would have been very easy to avoid all of the above, and live life on the safe side. But the opportunity cost of all those missed opportunities, would have been far more costly than any incremental risks I decided to take on.

But that’s not all. Fears and worries impose a very real toll on your health. A toll that is often far more damaging than the thing you’re fearing in the first place. To quote a resource from the University of Minnesota:

Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, and decreased fertility.  It can lead to accelerated ageing and even premature death.

Fear can impair formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave a person anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world looks scary and their memories confirm that.

Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately. Other consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression, and PSTD.

Finding the Balance

Which is not to say that we should never worry about anything. I would never make absolute statements like “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”. Things like unemployment and diabetes are very real things that should rightfully be feared. Not just because they are scary, but because there is a very good chance of them impacting you.

Thousands of Americans may have died in terrorist attacks, but millions have perished due to diabetes. Worrying about terrorism is unlikely to make any difference in your future. But worrying about diabetes can help you live a long and healthy life.

Fears help to focus our mind toward the problem at hand. They motivate us to take action on the things that can harm us. My fear of financial instability has motivated me to work hard in school, get a good job, and save a lot of money. My fear of future health problems has motivated me to exercise regularly and eat healthy. And my fear of dying alone has motivated me to socialize, make friends, and seek out relationships… such as the one I eventually found with my best friend, wife, and soulmate. Hence why I find it hard to take seriously platitudes about living life fearlessly.

The best way to worry, is to worry in moderation. 

Give yourself a “worry budget”. A budget that determines how many things you’ll allow yourself to worry about. Use your budget to prioritize the things that are most likely to have an impact on your life. Things like your health, your kids’ futures, or your marital happiness. And then make a conscious effort to ignore anything that doesn’t make the cut. Things like terrorist attacks or plane crashes, where you’ll have to live innumerable lifetimes before ever falling victim.

Worry every day about the things that matter. And then live the rest of your life in absolute peace.

Productive fears help us to grow as individuals, and prepare us for life’s challenges. Unproductive fears hold us back from life’s adventures, and erode our health. Some things in life should truly inspire fear in your heart. And chief among them, you should definitely be very afraid of being too afraid.

Related links:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy advice for dealing with anxiety
Fight anxiety by scheduling “Worry Time”