JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Risk vs. Fear: Chicken vs. Egg

Posted by on Sep 7, 2019

How I felt during Dorian’s approach.

Hurricane Dorian brought much more than wind, rain, and fear to my little, eventually unaffected part of the world. For someone who loves to over-analyze, it brought an interesting inquiry into my relationship to risk. My risk “profile” was something that had never occurred to me, it just was. It was one of those personality traits that goes unconsidered, like my favorite color, I don’t need to think about it, it just is. Have you ever thought about your relationship to risk? I wonder how many of us really do. If you do a search on the word, “risk,” right after all the dictionary definitions, it goes into risk management pages. Analyzing risk in a business context is full of equations and investment guidelines for how to “safely risk” your money. Sounds like an oxymoron to me. I hadn’t thought very much about risk since Hurricane Sandy, when we lived in New York, but once again, the threat of the storm teased out some awareness.

Calculated risk is comfortable for me. As you know, I like data and research and to evaluate past behaviors and trends to predict future ones. My problem is I also like intuition and instinct so balancing the two is my challenge. The problem with a hurricane is prediction, and this one was a doozy! Having horses means the weather is important. Living in Central Florida means the weather is important because it can have a great impact on the health and safety of our animals. The weather apps showed Dorian forming days before anyone was really thinking about it, but August is early for hurricane season so based on that “data,” my concern remained low. Ha! In a blink of an eye, it went from being a disturbance to a major threat, headed right for my farm. The earliest forecast maps had it engulfing all of Florida in the category 2 – 3 range. Two years ago, Irma was over 450 miles wide, covering the entire peninsula of Florida, so this map didn’t seem so impossible. For me, panic ensued, for my wife, Mette, not so much.

Risk and preparation are “married” in my mind. When thinking about risk and taking chances, my mind immediately and naturally goes to the questions of how prepared I am, can be, and need to be. So, as Dorian became a terror, my preparation actions and planning took over. Lists everywhere: who needs to do what and when, how many bags of shavings, sand, gas cans, hay, where are the water buckets? My mind was its own hurricane of questions with a desperate need for answers to sooth my aching risk-averse psyche. All of the preparation in the world didn’t make me feel less fear when Dorian was in a high-threat stage so what was going on? This would be my fourth hurricane. Irene was my first in 2011, when we lived in eastern Long Island. After twenty years in Southern California earthquake preparedness, I had no idea what to do for a hurricane. The “nice” part about a hurricane is the warning, at least you have time to prepare. Earthquakes, not so much. And so, I learned how to prepare for a hurricane with Irene, which was incredibly valuable just a year later when Sandy decimated the northeast—and we were prepared. So why didn’t I feel any better?

We are funny about risk from a psychological perspective. Risk is considered a stable personality trait over a lifetime, however we have little, if any, awareness of how we evaluate and employ risk. It is an innate response structure that is related to survival, of course, so it is designed to be hidden from view. We do all kinds of mental gyrations to position ourselves comfortably to risk we don’t want to see as risk or want to take anyway. Best example ever: smoking. For decades the research has been clear and unequivocal regarding the risk to smoking, yet many smoke. According to the CDC, 34.3 million, or 14% of adults smoke, and half of them suffer from smoking-related diseases. HALF! That means if you are a smoker, you have a significant chance of disease that not only decreases the quality of life, but the length. But still, we smoke. And if you talk to someone who smokes, they know, and they accept the risk. But you know what, smoking has absolutely nothing to do with risk.

Would you jump out of an airplane? My dad was an Air Force pilot and flew jets so had to jump out of planes to train with parachutes. Still, to this day, he will joke, “Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” My thoughts exactly. So, am I risk-averse or simply a big chicken? Probably both, which leads inevitably (and apologetically) to the question, is my risk-aversion the chicken or the egg to my fear? (Sorry, it had to be said.) But give me risk that is emotional or psychological and I am in. I was having dinner with a business colleague and she asked what kind of clinical work I like to do. It always feels a little weird to admit that I like to work with grief, but I do. Her eyes got big and she even pulled her body back a little as her physiological response to the emotional discomfort of the thought of grief work revealed itself in her unconscious body language. Being able to tolerate and support someone’s grief doesn’t seem like risk to me, but it does to many others. Grief is overwhelming and overpowering to the human psyche. It rubs the core of our being, which originates in our tribal nature of needing others, seeking connection, and loving relationships. It is the catastrophic end of the spectrum of love, and while seemingly unfair, it is unavoidable. Perhaps the threat of grief is what makes us love the way we do. I have pondered these questions endlessly and with no end in sight, creating respect and reverence for this deeply disturbing yet necessary element of our emotional lives.

The hurricane made me crazy. To me, crazy doesn’t mean ready for a psych ward, but a loss of function, a spinning, an inability to manage my emotions which, in turn, make my thoughts a jumbled mess. It made me feel out of control, upset, disrupted, punchy, and as much as I hate to admit this, victimized. I felt “at the effect of” it all instead of my normal trying to keep it all together-ness. The number of times the forecast changed was ultimately countless. The terrible and painful stall over the Bahama’s left me waiting and waiting and waiting for enough information to make my decisions. As I toiled with whether or not to board up my not-so-sturdy front windows, an entire country was being decimated. The duality was intense and made me feel incredibly selfish at times. And all the while, Mette was like, “Eh, whatever.” Not that she doesn’t care, but her risk profile is opposite of mine: she loves risk. And while that makes us a strong couple, in this situation, it made us, well, crazy. I couldn’t take the risk feeling and had little to no ability to understand why she wasn’t freaking out like I was! She loves our horses just as much so why wasn’t she as upset? She simply sat back, doing whatever I asked her to do to help calm my fears, willing to board up our windows for the impending 20 mph winds…

When overwhelmed with emotion, I try to distill the source down to the thought or belief at the core. I put a halter on my favorite “therapist,” one of my horses, and off we went for a walk and an inquiry. It went something like this:

Question: “What am I feeling?”

Answer: “Fear.”

Question: “What does it feel like?”

Answer: “A pit in my stomach, uncomfortable, makes me worry more, makes me want to get away from it.”

Question: “What am I afraid of?”

Answer: “The hurricane.”

Question: “That’s too simple. Why does that make me afraid?”

This question was much harder to answer. As I looked around, searching for the answer, I saw stuff, lots of stuff. The house, the barn, the equipment, I thought about my stuff in the house, and it was really all just stuff. All stuff that could be lost, some repaired, some replaced, some missed, but that was not what was driving my sheer terror. As I pressed my cheek against Majestic’s soft yet strong shoulder, tears began to flow with the thought of him being hurt or worse. The fatigue from the week had lowered my defenses, made me hyper-emotional, and more vulnerable. My fear, ironically, is my grief. For as much as I can tolerate the grief in another, I have tremendous fear of my own. As I stood there sobbing, releasing both the stress and the sadness, Majestic kept grazing. At one point, he picked his head up to rub his face on the back of my shoulder like he does, using me as a human scratching post. But this time, instead of resuming his quest for the best grass, he placed his nose is the crook of my neck and breathed deeply into my ear, as if to ask me to do the same. I took a deep breath, feeling some of the weight of my heart lifting, perhaps him relieving me of it. He went back to grazing, of course, and I giggled a little at my anthropomorphizing thoughts of him, all the while knowing his healing powers are real.

The connection to my fear was powerful, standing there in the grass and calm before the not-so-storm with my horse. With no frontal lobe to concoct a story of terror, Majestic simply had “what’s so” as his basis of behavior. I could feel and see, on a new level, how my fear of loss drives so much of my behavior and how it has been concealed from view. I give my heart fully to the people and animals I love, giving me immeasurable gifts while they are with me, and immeasurable grief when they go. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to help others in that kind of pain; I get it, I understand it, I own it, and I love anyway. The funny thing is, I take huge and incalculable risks when it comes to my heart and loving another. Humph. Noticing this, I began to look at the other areas of my life and the risks I take. As an athlete, calculated: I pushed as hard as I felt my fitness could sustain, not as hard as I needed to risk in order to get to the next level. Wow, I had never seen that. Professionally, I’m a wimp. Even harder to admit to myself, if I am certain I will succeed, sure, I’ll give it a go, but if there is a whiff of risk, I can instantly find dozens of reasons why not to try something. Wow, I had never seen that, either; these were true revelations. My head was spinning. I have convinced myself over and over I am choosing not to do something because it is too risky but really, I am afraid.

I’m not sure exactly what to do with it all yet, but what I am becoming more and more aware of is how much I avoid risk without having a clue. Perhaps there is some work to do personally around how to prepare for this kind of risk, professionally (since my athletic career is over). The kind of preparation this will call for is not my usual preparation with lists and data and collecting facts and history to help predict the future. This is one of preparing to jump, which is again, an oxymoron, because really, there is no preparing, there is only jumping. This article is a first and not as insignificant jump as it seems, but look for more from me…how about you?