Day 6: The Fear Matrix Yesterday I gave you your first homework assignment: start paying attention to your thoughts. As you watch the activity of your mind, you may notice that certain types of fears pop up. Perhaps some of them are pain-related: “Is my pain ever going to go away?” “Is it better or worse than it was yesterday?” “Is this program really going to help?” Perhaps some of them are non-pain-related: “Is my boss mad at me?” “Am I going to get enough sleep?” “Did I accidentally like my ex’s Instagram picture?” Regardless of whether these fear thoughts are about your pain, your job, or your social media faux pas, they all serve a singular purpose: they’re trying to protect you. The Purpose of Fear A few years ago, Howard Schubiner and I were talking with a producer about doing a reality show, kind of like “The Biggest Loser,” but with pain. We had an upcoming radio interview on the topic of pain, and this interview was going to be used to pitch the reality show to production companies. This was a high stakes interview! If it went well, we could get the show, help put this treatment approach on the map, and achieve society’s highest honor – becoming reality TV stars. To say I was nervous was an understatement. The radio interview was scheduled for 11 AM. We were each supposed to call in to the station, Howard from Michigan, me from Los Angeles. Around 10:40 AM, I had the following fear thought: “Wait – is it 11 Eastern Time or 11 Pacific Time??” I silently answered myself, “Relax, it’s 11 Pacific Time. You’re fine.” Then about 30 seconds later, I was hit with another one: “What if you get laryngitis and you can’t talk?!” “What?” I thought, “That doesn’t even make sense.” And then the fears just completely veered off-topic: “Did you pay rent this month?” “Did you turn off the oven?” “Did you forget Megan’s birthday?” I eventually calmed myself down, and we did the radio interview. Fear thought after fear thought popped into my mind that morning, some of them related to the interview, some of them completely random. When your brain thinks that you’re in danger, it will scan the environment for threats. Like a zebra living in a jungle full of lions, your brain is on high alert. Fear thoughts are our brains’ way of trying to identify potential threats. This is actually an effective strategy when we’re surrounded by predators, since it maximizes our chance of survival. But you’re not a zebra, and there are no lions. Your brain just doesn’t know that. The Origin of Fear If you grew up in an environment where you didn’t feel entirely safe, your brain may have started scanning for danger early on. There are many different factors that can lead to feeling unsafe: Maybe you had parents who got angry easily, maybe you had parents who couldn’t tolerate emotions at all. Maybe you didn’t get enough attention, maybe you got too much attention. Maybe you had caregivers who were anxious themselves. Maybe your family life was great, but you got bullied in high school, or had dyslexia, or moved around a lot. Maybe your childhood was great, but as an adult, you were mugged, or got cheated on, or were traumatized by an earthquake. Somewhere along the line, due to a sensitive temperament, environmental factors, or both, your brain got the message: I am not safe. And once it did, it started scanning the environment for threats, and your fear-thought habit was born. Even now, you may be thinking, “Does this apply to me?” “Can I really change this?” “Do I need to know where the fear came from?” (Yes, yes, and no.) To begin changing your relationship with fear, it’s important to not just watch the activity of your mind, but to decipher it. Unmasking the Fear The following clip from “The Matrix” is probably the best metaphor for deciphering the activity of your mind. Neo is finally able to see the matrix for what it is, and it frees him from fear. You’re not scared because you have fear thoughts, your mind generates fear thoughts because it wants you to be scared. Our brains have evolved to protect us, and when your brain thinks you’re constantly in danger, it wants you to be constantly alert. And that is the purpose of these incessant, seemingly spontaneous fear thoughts: they are vehicles, a means to an end, a subtle and effective way to bring you to that familiar state of fear. And while each of these thoughts seems distinct: “Is my pain going to go away?” “Will I ever find my soulmate?” “Is anyone going to like my brownies?” When you realize that all these fears are interchangeable – that they are simply brilliant little storylines to bring you from point A to point B – you can finally see the matrix for what it is.