December 17th, 2021 | The Primal Fear. (The Monsters Sleep Tonight.)
What Even a Neuroscientist Cannot Handle.
When you work in neuroscience, you learn a lot about the functioning of the human brain. You learn about circuits in the brain, neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity, and cognitive disorders. You learn hundreds of tricks that might help you be more productive. But, you don’t learn anything about: how to be happier and live a beautiful life.
And obviously, you learn that mental health problems are common and normal. And yet, for a long time, I tried to ignore my mental state – perhaps also because of pride or the stigma of being a neuroscientist. You know (almost) everything you need to know about the human brain, so how would you not be able to help yourself, right? Well, I was trying to ignore the situation for over 20 years but now in the times of the corona crisis, it became more than obvious that this must change.
The Primal Fear.
I sometimes feel that the rules for what is scary in my life, and what is not, are upside down, or inside out. Namely, I don’t fear most of the situations in which most people feel some degree of fear or stress. At school, I was always in the first line of kids volunteering for taking part in competitions in all disciplines, from maths to sports.
Then, I went for the most competitive studies and juggled three majors at a time – to embark on a PhD in yet another highly competitive discipline called Computational Neuroscience. I don’t have any issues with bungee jumping, going to a nude sauna, or giving public talks or presentations. I went to Tanzania to hike Kili all by myself. I hiked in the Andes alone. I lived with homeless people in San Francisco for three days. I started a company all by myself and without any capital. Any of these didn’t make me feel any stress in particular.
But when all the lights go off, and when nothing in particular happens, then the Primal Fear crawls to the back of my head. It comes when I wake up in the morning when I take a walk in the park when I peacefully work on something. And, my heart starts pounding like crazy and I experience this irresistible feeling that everything, absolutely EVERYTHING, will go wrong.
There is always yet another reason to start panicking. At school, I used to feel stressed every time I was the best at something. I feared that someone else could take my place and I was disciplining myself to become even better. But on the other hand, whenever I wasn’t the best, it was a reason to feel stressed and make a double effort as well.
Until this day, I am good at finding reasons to fear in every situation. When I have a job, I fear because of external expectations.
When I don’t have a boss, I fear because I feel disconnected and I’m not sure if I am on the right track.
When I don’t earn, I fear because my account is empty.
When I do earn, I fear because I get catastrophic visions in which I can make a mistake in my taxes and get imprisoned. (which might not even be possible in the Dutch system but I fear anyway.)
When I don’t have a partner, I fear that I won’t find anyone similar to me. When I do have a partner, I fear that they will leave me anyways.
When I work on something, I wonder if I spend my time on the right project. When I rest, I wonder if perhaps I should be working instead.
There is always something to fear from.
And it’s weirdly ironic when people constantly tell you that you must be a brave person, while you feel like the direct opposite of what they believe you are…
The Kid Within.
For a long time, I liked to think that these states of fear and anxiety are just a part of me. Kids usually experience anxiety in various situations, as they are learning the world from scratch.
When you are a kid, there are always some monsters under your bed. So, I liked to think that people who have that “kid” component – those of artistic and adventurous nature, who are naturally curious and test their boundaries all the time – might naturally suffer from these states of anxiety. That was just my theory, and I was treating my fears as a badge of honour.
But now, in times of the corona crisis, it became more than obvious to me that I need to do something about the situation. Namely, I realized that with age, the situation will NOT get any better for me.
While some people become more and more chilled with age, I was getting more and more anxious. Despite eating healthily, meditating, going to the sauna regularly, sleeping well, and exercising, my state of mind was only going downhill. It was time to take more radical steps to deal with the situation.
The Light In The Tunnel.
Recently, I finally got over the stigma and asked for help. I recently started therapy. The doctor was lurking at me from behind the desk, asking me how come I didn’t even try to solve this problem before.
He said, “You are not mentally ill. You have a problem that many people have. And there is medicine for it, just as for any other inconvenience like anaemia or hypertension. Your neurotransmitters need some massaging, that’s all.”
And I have no idea why I didn’t reach out for help up to this point; it feels quite irresponsible when I think about it. But I’m on the right track. Quite frankly, after just a few days, it feels much better already. And hopefully, the monsters finally sleep tonight.
Who Is The Strong One In The Pack?
In my family, there is a belief that if you pay an effort, you can get through life without any therapy, diet supplements, or medication. Taking any “chemistry” is a sign of weakness and laziness.
Moreover, I was thinking to myself, “As a company owner, can you admit that you need help? Perhaps you are too weak for a leader?” There is this common rhetoric that leaders, CEOs, authors, and influencers cannot show any weakness, as it will make them lose clients.
But who is the strong one in a pack after all? Someone who lives passively and accepts that they are dysfunctional, or rather, someone who searches for help and goes forward with their life?
If I can summarize this story in any way, I would say: get over pride because there is only so much you can do about your health at home. And life is just passing by. If your mental state gets out of control, ask for help. Even as a neuroscientist.
Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (2021, December 17th). The Primal Fear (The Monsters Sleep Tonight). Retrieved from: https://nataliabielczyk.com/the-primal-fear/
* * *
If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Ontology of Value where I write posts dedicated to these topics.