Fear is Contagious

Recently, inside the MVCoho, halfway between Victoria, British Columbia and Port Angeles, Washington, I had an epiphany. The more peaceful those around us are, the more manageable our fears.

One day, I remember, the GalPal got exasperated with me for not being more sensitive to some fear of hers. “You don’t have any fears!” she lamented. If only. Among my fears I’m afraid of turbulence while flying, rough seas while boating (detect a pattern?), and what Tom Brady might do to the Hawks if the Superbowl footballs aren’t inflated properly.

Halfway between Canada and the United States, the MVCoho started rocking and rolling in a heavy metal manner. So much so people couldn’t walk. Outwardly, I was masking my inner dread. The inner dialogue. “This is stupid. I’m probably one of the stronger swimmers on the boat. Yeah, but that won’t matter. Hypothermia will set in so fast, I’ll be toast just like everyone else.” Closing my eyes didn’t stop the rocking.

I decided to study other people’s faces to assess just how bad the situation was, and lo and behold, I couldn’t find a single person who even looked distracted by the experience. I let their calm wash over me. Everyone’s nonchalance convinced me we I was going to be alright. I considered giving each person a hug once we anchored, but I’m too introverted (fear of strangers?).

The Pew Research Center has published an interesting study about the relationship between social media use and stress. They conclude, “Awareness of stressful events in others’ lives is a significant contributor to people’s own stress.” The opposite of my boat experience. If you look around and everyone is panicking, your anxiety will increase.

It’s not a direct correlation, but the more people use social media, the more aware they are of stress events in others’ lives, and the greater their own stress tends to be. This is especially true for women.

My recent experience on the high seas and the Pew study make me think maybe we should be more intentional about surrounding ourselves with people who are less afraid of what frightens us most easily.

What Engineers Get Wrong

Mr. Money Mustache, a former engineer and Longmont, Colorado-based blogger, has struck a chord with his retire early gospel. To the tune of about 800,000 separate vistors and 3.5 million page views a month. A large part of his appeal is his directness about people’s tendency to waste money unnecessarily.

I like his thesis that community is far more fulfilling than material pursuits, but dislike the groupthink his followers often display.

His advice is to get a good paying job (easier written than done) and then work for 10-15 years saving half of what you earn. Then, when you have $500k or so saved up, quit work and spend time doing whatever you find most meaningful. For him that’s blogging, carpentry, and spending time with family and friends. $500k is far less than nearly every other retirement “expert” recommends saving. MMM believes everyone can do what his family does, live quite comfortably on about $25k a year.

Their house is paid off and they have one inexpensive car that they rarely use. Instead, they bicycle almost everywhere. His most recent post was titled “Bicycling: The Safest Form of Transportation”. That post has generated over 360 comments, many which consisted of a mathematical back and forth, some challenging his use of statistics, others defending him.

In reply to one commenter, he shouted, “You can’t disagree with the math by listing four pieces of anecdotal evidence!” And then, at the end of the of the same reply added what might be the engineers’ motto, “Calculations and spreadsheets for everything.”

These aren’t just the words of one widely read blogger, they succinctly articulate the central message of a wide range of policy makers that see data analysis as a panacea for nearly all of society’s ills. That belief, “calculations and spreadsheets for everything,” is what informs the emphasis upon STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—at the expense of the the humanities, the arts, and foreign languages.

I can’t help but wonder if MMM only interacts with other engineers with the exact same “calculations and spreadsheet” worldview. Mind boggling that someone as smart as him believes that any spreadsheet might make someone less afraid to ride their bike across a major metropolitan area. As if phobias are rational and can simply be argued away with math. If that was true, people wouldn’t see psychologists, they’d see mathematicians. “Let’s see, you’re afraid of flying in airplanes. Take a look at this spreadsheet then.”

Engineers think people are rational. If that were true, people would change their favorite Starbucks order based on their new calorie charts and every investor would always buy low and sell high. A more realistic counter motto is “Subjective emotions for everything”. Few people study calculations and spreadsheets when making friends, love, or decisions about how to get to and from work. They do it based upon a messy, unscientific, imperfect combination of intuition, feel, and emotion.

That’s what engineers get wrong.

A Better Way To Treat Anxiety

The title of a recent Wall Street Journal article about exposure therapy. 1.8 million young people, or nearly 10% in the U.S., experience anxiety disorders of some sort. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Virginia Tech and other institutions are finding that slowly exposing children to the things they are anxious about, at an early point in treatment, can be highly effective in helping them overcome anxiety.

Stephen Whiteside, a  Mayo pediatric psychologist, in the article:

When parents help children to escape from feared situations, anxiety symptoms may worsen and children frequently become more impaired.

Exposure therapy explained. Also verbatim from the article:

1) Children are gradually exposed early in treatment to things and situations they fear, and parents receive training as ‘exposure coaches’. Instead of avoiding things, the child begins to learn new ways to behave.

2) Don’t overreact. If your child is complaining or distressed about an upcoming situation—say a math test—tell him you understand how upsetting it is but you are going to be very proud of him for trying.

3) Save the praise. Praise the child only after she actually takes a step toward dealing with her fear, such as germs (‘You did a great job of riding the bus on the field trip.’)

4) One step at a time. Encourage your child to take small steps toward a goal, such as visiting an airport in advance of a scheduled flight.

5) Encourage decision making. Let your child make some choices on his own, such as whether to walk past a dog or visit a house where there is a dog.

6) Grin and bear it. Encourage your child in situations that might involve her fears, such as conversing with strangers—even if you think she might become upset or make a scene.

7) Positive reinforcement. Communicate that you are confident that your child can accomplish the goal, such as separating from the family for a camping trip. Tell her it will get easier every time she does something new.

Number five reminds me that when I was young, I was deathly afraid of dogs. In the sixties, with three older sibs, I was left to my own to work it out. Less intelligent than the dogs that scared the sh*t out of me, I tried to outrun a few. Which of course only made things much, much worse. Now, I’m happy to report, the family sometimes worries I may be too close to one particular doggie.

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Spare me the “guess marijuana really is legal in Washington” jokes. It’s early.

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