by Dr. Ellen McNally, Providence, RI
Why do we act on fears that are unlikely to occur? Why do we diminish the high risk of things we do on a daily basis? I have thought about these questions often since watching an interesting Ted Talk by Karen Thompson Walker called “What Fear Can Teach Us.” She teaches that fears should be thought of as stories; we are the authors and readers of our own fears.
To prove her theory, Walker references a compelling story of the whaleship Essex that was used as research for Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In the story, men fear the possibility of cannibals in close proximity to their shipwreck and decide to risk a much longer journey to another island, knowing they would run out of food. Walker quotes Melville: “All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might in all human probability have been avoided had they, immediately after leaving the wreck, steered straight for Tahiti… but they dreaded cannibals.”
Walker then questions why the men dread cannibals over the extreme likelihood of starvation. She insists that as the reader of our own fears, we are artists and scientists. The men of the whaleship Essex should have read their fears with the coolness of scientists rather than focusing their minds on the vivid story they dreamed up with the passion of an artist.
At the end of her lecture, Walker makes the thought-provoking statement that we should spend less time worrying about the most vivid and less likely, and more time focusing on the more likely slower disasters we face in life, like plaque build-up (a silent killer).
As I went about my day, I thought back on Walker’s talk and came to realize that her premise was resoundingly true. Both giving into irrational fear and ignoring true risk to one’s health is something that prevents many people from making improvements to their overall health and happiness.
I’m afraid to go to the gym for the first time because people will be watching me.
Some genuinely envision more seasoned gym goers standing off to the side and talking about how they, the newbie, have no idea what they are doing. Some are so afraid that others are thinking negative thoughts about them that they’d rather suffer from their lack of activity, even though they know if they’d begin a better exercise routine, their chronic pain could improve, their blood pressure could decrease, their cholesterol could decrease, etc.
They read their fears with the passion of an artist rather than the coolness of a scientist. In that, they allow the unlikely fear that others will think badly of them to prevent them from living a healthier, happier life.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I have never known anyone at any gym I have belonged to who would think negatively of someone who was trying to help themselves, or who asked for assistance when they might not know how to operate the treadmill or elliptical. Patients are often resistant to making real changes in their activities or habits; they don’t always take time to resolve their extreme, unlikely fears.
The first step is always the hardest, but you must push past the vivid, unlikely fears in order to conquer the less violent but more likely real threats to your health.
Dr. Ellen McNally is the owner of Chiropractic Performance Center in Providence, RI. She specializes in comprehensive evaluations, offering advanced techniques such as Active Release Technique and RockTape with chiropractic care. She is the on-site chiropractor at Acushnet Company Headquarters, owners of Titleist and FootJoy brands.