I’m walking my Alaskan Husky, Swix, on the frozen lake, and the ice sounds like styrofoam.
The ice is still stable, but we are heading into the shoulder season and it will melt (or "go out") in a few weeks.
In the winter, the ice gets thick enough for volunteers to plow a road (called I-5 or "Ice 5") around the lake. The ice on the road is strong enough to hold a heavy fuel truck, but mostly it's just locals driving to their cabins and a few of us that walk for exercise.
Tonight, parts of the road have this eerie, creaking sound. The areas are too big to walk around so I have to walk through them.
My heart races as I hold my breath and try to run/tiptoe/fly across each section while trying to look totally cool about the whole thing.
“I’m going to fall through the ice and die,” says one part of my brain.
“Um, you drove a 500-pound snowmachine around the lake yesterday,” says another part.
“What if I fall through and can’t find my way out? Do I look for white or black ice? I can’t remember!!! Oh god, I'm going to die.”
“Calm down! Swix is walking ahead of you. He weighs at least half of what you do and nothing under you is moving. You are fine.”
“What if I do break through? I’ll freeze and DIE!!”
“Seriously, they measured more than 20 inches of ice yesterday, most of it clear and you are within sight of everyone on the lake. You are holding a leash hooked to a sled dog who is bred to pull your arm out of its socket. And even if you were to fall in, freaking out wouldn’t help prevent it or save you.”
Back and forth the sections of my brain argue. Knowing which argument to believe, the fearful or the dismissive can be a trick.
Fear comes from the part of the brain designed to keep us alive. It's good, but it’s important to know the how it functions.
It’s designed to alert us to all potential dangers. “Hey! Over there, something moved. Hey! Did you hear that? Hey! Did you see how she looked at you?” It’s like a German short-haired pointer on speed.
Fear can save us. Say when we encounter a cougar or wild hyena.
But realistically, most of the moments of our lives are pretty safe and ordinary. They don’t really require code red-plaid-pants warning status.
Still, twenty-four hours a day our brains scan for danger the way your smartphone scans for a wireless signal.
You might think that turning off the alert system would be the best solution. But consider this: what if a cougar does leap through your car door and wants your sandwich? You’ll need this little design feature if you want to hang onto your lunch.
One option is to believe all warnings and march yourself into total phobia land. If you don’t want to head to phobia therapy three times a week… you can simply test your fears to see if they are real or false.
Martha Beck teaches the simplest way to decide if your fear is real or not.
True fear is calm, false fear is anxious.
Think about it. When you are in real danger, your mind gets incredibly clear and you have energy you didn’t know you had. There aren’t a lot of thoughts racing through your head, you don’t sit around debating, you simply act.
That’s your fight/flight/freeze feature in all its stunning glory. It’s FAST, it’s exact and it saves you from cougars.
False fear fa-ree-eeea-ks out. It chatters, paces around, wrings its hands and keeps you up till 3 am running "what if" scenarios.
I checked the ice charts after my evening on ice and found we had enough to hold a 1-ton truck.
But I knew my fears were false even before I double checked because my mind was in overdrive panicking about it. Panic and worry are telltale signs of false fear for me.
Testing your fears sounds simple but it takes bravery. I encourage you to start small. The same way you start lifting weights.
Check out a small fear like being afraid to not finish all the food your mom put on your plate and see if you live through it.
True fear is calm, false fear is anxious.
I’ll join you. I’ll stand within 500 feet of a picture of a small tree frog and see if it jumps on my face and suffocates me to death. (I know, right?)
Testing small fears lets you grow strong enough to take on bigger and bigger fears.
Fears like saying "no" to the promotion that is wrong for you, saying "yes" to a project that will stretch you or telling your father that you’ve just quit your job to start your own helicopter company.
I challenge you to test one small fear and see what happens.