I’m afraid of everything.
There are many different types of phobias, and most of them are specific. Lots of people are scared of places, like small spaces or tall heights; others have a strong aversion to certain objects, like spiders or blood; and others avoid specific scenarios, like flying or being surrounded by strangers. Triggers like these range far and wide, but they all have something in common: they’re specific.
It’s often easy to tell exactly what causes your blood to run cold when you have a phobia. If you’re near your trigger – or sometimes, if you even just think about that trigger – your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes shallow, and you feel a strong inclination to run away. One key aspect of phobias is that if you successfully retreat to a safe space (whether it’s real or imagined), your fear dissipates. Once your heart rate has slowed, you can reengage with the world. In most cases, life goes on.
So imagine – or if you’re like me, you don’t have to imagine – what would happen if your phobic anxiety became nonspecific, if that bone-chilling sensation of fear followed you around without attaching itself to any particular trigger. You wouldn’t know what you’re afraid of, so you wouldn’t know how to hide from it.
Instead of running from bugs or airports, you would have to run from everything. The spaces that once seemed safe would harbor no relief for you. Inevitably, you would just keep running.
And that’s because ultimately, fear doesn’t come from the things we’re afraid of. It comes from us. Evolutionarily, terror is a useful feeling: if sheer cliffs and venomous animals and dangerous people didn’t scare us, we would get too close to them and potentially die. Our ancestors who felt enough fear to run from those threats are the ones who got to procreate and pass along their fear-generating genes.
There is a limit to the utility of fear, however. This is apparent in many common phobias. The chances that a plane will fall out of the sky are dramatically lower than the chances that a fatal car crash will occur. Regardless, those who are afraid of flying often have no anxiety getting behind a steering wheel.
And so, the word “irrational” becomes key in describing many modern-day anxieties. Logic doesn’t always inform our fear, and in many cases, the degree to which anxiety gets misplaced is drastic. The brain runs rampant, and people, places, and things that are overwhelmingly safe can trigger fear. The mind teaches itself to perceive everything as dangerous.
Living in a state of “everything phobia” is terrible. It’s a bit like feeling constantly uneasy because you think you’re forgetting something important, and there will be consequences if you don’t remember it. Clinicians call this “generalized anxiety disorder” because the fear it generates doesn’t attach itself to anything in particular, like a phobia would. Instead, GAD causes a sense of dread to float over everything. No physical place alleviates this insecurity, because everywhere you go, you take the disorder with you. Reassuring words from a loved one might help ease the pain for a little while, but the pathological worry comes back before too long.
It should be noted that there is a difference between suffering from an anxiety disorder and just living a stressful life. A key component of having GAD is that your anxiety comes from your brain, not your environment. A high-stakes career or a burdensome marriage can cause you to stress every day for years, but if that feeling is reasonably proportionate to the difficulties in your life, you don’t necessarily have GAD.
Even an intense case of GAD can be devilishly difficult to notice. For example, my anxiety causes me to fear wherever I am as well as anywhere I could go, even if my rational mind knows those places are safe. I’ve never been in danger at Safeway, or my favorite coffee shop, or my gym. However, I always feel vaguely threatened when I picture myself stepping through the door into those places. I can never put my finger on why; is it a fear that strangers will judge me? No, I know they’ll barely glance at me before they return to whatever they were doing. Is it an anxiety over looking bad, or running into someone I don’t want to see, or any number of other negative things that could happen? Those scenarios don’t seem to explain my sense of dread either.
That’s because there is nothing inherently threatening in the places I fear. My unease is a result of a chemical disorder, and that’s about it. Even though I know that, the anxiety persists. I can’t think my way out of feeling it, and I doubt any amount of conditioning could ever totally convince me that the world and anyone in it are safe. Exposure therapy may help, but ultimately, my problem is chemical.
My inner monologue has been working overtime for years to remind me that the overwhelming majority of my options are nonfatal. Choosing any of them will require a leap of faith that my anxiety assures me will end catastrophically – but that’s what makes leaping so important.