The Boston bombing has shaken Americans like nothing since 9/11. We're afraid. Who could do such a thing? Are we next? The fear multiplies, threatening to take over our thoughts.
Having lived with anxiety disorder for 25 years, I have what I like to think of as a deeper-than-average relationship with fear. I've been to the emergency room mistaking panic for a heart attack. My agoraphobia has made a walk to the corner store a challenge. Even when I'm doing well, I have to steel myself to take BART or drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Talk therapy, drug therapy, biofeedback, meditation — I've tried them all. I've also read books about fear by neuroscientists, sociologists, psychiatrists. Nowadays, when panic strikes, I understand exactly what's happening — and I've got the tools to make good decisions despite the fight-or-flight impulses.
The most important of these tools is to face fear honestly and directly, questioning the unrealistic stories we tell ourselves about what we fear. It allows me to realize my heartburn isn't a heart attack.
We could have used tools like these after 9/11. But instead of focusing on the true cause of our fear we distracted ourselves with existential threats du jour like WMDs and the Axis of Evil. Duct tape and shopping was the advice, leaving us the impossible task of both engaging and forgetting our fear.
The price of distraction and confusion has been high. Between domestic spying and airport security theater, Americans are less free today than before 9/11 — but only arguably safer. Meanwhile, our global brand is as much about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and killer drones as freedom, opportunity and justice.
When we believe the voice in our head that says we're having a heart attack, fear is terrifying — and making good decisions is hard. When we question that voice, fear's hold on us loosens. Here's hoping that, this time, we can remember that.
With a Perspective I'm Eric Wilinski.
Eric Wilinski is a writer and marketing consultant. He lives in San Francisco.