This post is part of the Overcoming Anxiety series.
I was not mauled by a territorial mother bear protecting her cubs and/or my face eaten off by a male bear I inadvertently interrupted while getting his swerve on during mating season.
But that’s not to say it won’t happen next time I lace up my running shoes. That’s what the part of my brain known as System 1 believes at least.
All systems go
System 1: The Gut
System 1, as Daniel Gardner explains in The Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn’t, and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger (as a result), informs our decisions by a hard-wired evolutionary mechanism tied to our innate need for self-preservation and survival. It is set to automatic and produces snap judgments.
System 1 is the gut.
Gardner’s example is a person considering a walk, alone, in Los Angeles. System 1 immediately retrieves examples that invoke fear. The ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ types of stories you’d expect to see on the nightly news or at a Donald Trump rally.
Stories of rape, abduction, murder, and/or robbery flood the brain. In other words, a walk, alone, in Los Angeles could be considered high risk based on media reports you have consumed and archived in your brain which now, through immediate recall, inform your System 1 of dire consequences. Statistically, a walk alone in Los Angeles is not a calamitous adventure on foot. I have friends in L.A. and none have been murdered by a notorious street gang featured in an HBO documentary.
I promise you, they are all wasting away behind keyboards, their midsections getting ever the softer each day from an addiction to the Internet and their need to write and be, what is called in our circle, writers.
The effects from a lack of exercise are the real statistics that should invoke worry.
Cholesterol. Heart disease. Diabetes.
Perhaps just the simple mention of “a walk, alone, in Los Angeles” caused an instant response from your System 1. What if I replace Los Angeles with Chicago—what images appear? How about a plane ride, a tornado, or a terrorist attack?
When swimming in a pool as a young child in the 1980s, did you ever induce terror in your own being imagining a great white shark was going to bust through the vent in the deep end and chew you to pieces and spit out your blood and bone splinters? Yeah, me neither.
In the event you did picture a great white shark (Christian name: JAWS) eating you for lunch, as if you are a hot ham and cheese with curly fries from B&D Mart, then you know what System 1 is.
System 2: The Brain
System 2 is reasoning, logic. It’s your head doing what your head is really good at doing if we allow System 2 to do its thing, which is
drop MF knowledge laboriously analyze critical data and information sets in a slower, more deliberate manner and formulate a conclusion based on careful thought and insight.
Here you go. If a bat and a ball cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
A lot of you probably think System 2 kicked in because we’re talking math, and perhaps System 2 did kick in for some of you. But for most of you, System 1, the gut, answered with a snap judgment and said, “The ball costs 10 cents.”
If so, this is an example of why you shouldn’t always listen to your gut. Why? Because the answer to this classic riddle isn’t 10 cents. The answer, if you had let it stew and listened to System 2, which most of us don’t do, is 5 cents.
If you answered that the ball costs 10 cents, then that means the bat, which is $1 more, would cost $1.10, and therefore, the total cost would be $1.20, not $1.10.
In a perfect world, System 1 and System 2 would work together harmoniously, doing what they each do best and informing one another based on the immediacy of the threat or situation, if there is even a threat at all. What often happens though, is that the two systems operate in silos, or, in the case with anxiety and panic disorder, among other conditions, there’s a misfire or a piece of the bridge connecting the two that needs repair so that the traffic (flow of information) can pass through and park safely (come to a logical conclusion).
Example: Berry picking 100,000 years ago
Think about it like this. Early man once was prey to all sorts of creatures, right? If he wanted to survive and pass on his DNA to future generations, his physiological fight or flight response better work like it was intended. Do your thing hypothalamus. Do your thing.
Let’s say early man is out picking berries for his cave girlfriend who is back in the cave shaving her legs with a saber tooth tiger tooth. As early man walks over to the berry bush, it starts to shake. Early man remembers how uncle caveman died and grandpa caveman—one by a tiger and the other by a crocodile, so if early man wants to see his cave girlfriend again and potentially make her his cave wife and have cave babies, System 1 needs to be firing on all cylinders, which it is thankfully, so early man hightails it outta there.
In primitive times, early man didn’t have time to wait on System 2 to consider the probability of whether it was a tiger, a crocodile, or a bunch of asshole squirrels messing with him and, thus, creating the basis for an argument with his cave girlfriend later.
HER: I thought you were out getting berries.
HIM: I was, but the bush shook, so I…
HER: You went to the bar again, didn’t you, you lying sack of mammoth s––t
END OF ACT 1
BACK TO MY IMAGINARY BEAR ATTACK
So we know this: System 1 is fast. It’s gut instinct. It may very well save your a–– one day, and maybe already has. System 2 is slow and deliberate. If you are a knowledge-based worker, tip your hat to System 2 because System 2 is putting in overtime and is paying your mortgage on time.
Now, how do I make the two systems work together?
First, if the situation isn’t immediate then don’t let the gut force its thinking on you as the primary source and the only source. Form a mental habit and say to yourself: “I have two systems. Have they both kicked in?” Easier said than done, I know. I have what is known as generalized anxiety disorder, so my brain works like this: what’s the worst thing that could happen? That’s where I start—the worst first—and I have to work backward from it, meaning: worst, worse, least worse, good, better, best.
That pain in your spine? Spinal tumor. The knot on your head? Nope, not a scar from when you were a kid and cracked your skull on the indoor wood stove. Malignant brain cancer. The electrical vibration you’re feeling over your heart? Nope, not a physical manifestation of anxiety in the form of a panic attack. You have a rare heart condition. The odd chlorine smell in the air in October? No, they aren’t draining the pool nearby. It’s an airborne toxic event circa Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
(I’m not making light of the medical conditions above. I’m pointing out a few of the thoughts my brain has actually had over the past six months, so you understand where I’m coming from as it relates to anxiety)
Until I identified and began managing my anxiety, System 1 was almost always my default. It still is for the most part. The difference now is that System 2 kicks in fairly quickly, whereas before, System 2 would knock, and System 1 was like, “Nah, bro. You can’t come in. We’re freaking out in here and we have every right to freak out.”
Now, because I’m more conscious of how my brain operates, System 2 says to System 1, “You may be right, but this situation isn’t immediate, so give me a little bit of time to run some analysis and I’ll get back to you shortly. By the way, why a bear attack? Oh, that’s right, YouTube.”
What’s the likelihood I’ll be maimed or killed by a bear?
Statistically speaking, what is the likelihood I’ll be maimed, mauled, my face eaten off, or killed by a normally docile black bear while running in the suburbs of Virginia? Not very.
Full disclosure: I do have lots of trees in my suburb.
Roughly three people die each year at the
hands paws of bears in North America. And bears tend to find Canadians tasty and Virginians not so much. Perhaps Canadians taste like Canadian bacon, eh? Perhaps bears hate hockey? Perhaps bears dislike Alanis Morissette? Okay, I’m done.
For perspective, compare that to how many people are attacked and killed by dogs each year or that are struck by lightning, both of which are fairly unlikely and greater than or equal to 1 in a million odds—granted, this is coming from the guy (1) who once got zapped by lightning that came through the corded phone in high school while talking to his girlfriend and was shot across and off the bed and was deafened in one ear for two weeks (should have listened to you mom when you said not to use the phone during an electrical storm), and (2) who has been bitten in the hand by a dog and his knucklebone exposed and one trip to the ER later. But hey, I didn’t die.
Okay, so I just have bad luck…
Anyway, back to the cold hard facts.
According to the Wildlife Research Institute, you’re 45 times more likely to be killed by a dog this year than killed by a bear; and 250 times more likely to be killed by lightning.
Yet System 1 lingers, reminding you of the recent news release on NBC29 Charlottesville of the woman who had one of her two dogs killed while hiking the Shenandoah.
Okay, System 2, do your thing and combat System 1’s nonsense.
You know how politicians try to scare the bejesus out of you talking about terrorism this and terrorism that? Do you know that you are more likely to be killed by an asteroid than killed in a terrorist attack?
And I’m not talking about a simulated death while playing a retro Atari game.
A real life asteroid.
Let me repeat that again.
Sure, part of the probability is due to the extreme devastation an asteroid would cause if it hit, but nevertheless, your chance of dying at the hands of a terrorist in the U.S. is so ridiculously low that it rivals your chance of being killed by a cow this year.
That’s right. Cows kill about 20 people in the U.S. each year; or, said another way: I’m as likely or more likely to experience death by cow this year (not hamburger or food poisoning, mind you) as I am from some evil terrorist the media and my fear-riddled friends and relatives on the right keep posting about on Facebook. I’m seven times more likely to be killed by a cow while running the trails of Charlottesville, Virginia, than killed by my imaginary bear friend.
Also, death by falling out of the bed.
A champagne cork. No, really.
The list goes on and on.
And these are all fairly improbable scenarios. I’m not talking about car accidents, cancer, or gun violence. I’m talking about s––t that rarely ever happens.
This is where System 2 excels. Information gathering and deep analysis.
Whereas System 1 says, “Bear! I saw it on the news. I saw a YouTube video. It was horrible. I’m going to die! But I’m so young. I had so much hope and promise. Well, maybe not. But I’m so young…”
System 2 says, “Hold up. Let me Google some s––t from some legitimate, well cited sources. Just what I thought. You’re far more likely to win the lottery twice or experience death by furniture. Go run. Oh, and ah, watch out for the asteroids. I’m just kidding.”
As Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, and originator of the System 1 and System 2 naming classification said, “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”
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