Fear. Oh, I hate it so. It has both kept me awake and haunted my sleep. I have missed out on what should have been fun or exciting moments because of worry, distress, anxiety--all words to describe subtle variations of fear.
November, 2002. When the NATO conference came to Prague, our language school, across the street from the US Embassy, closed for the week. A friend and I decided to go to Krakow. Despite a long delay while changing trains near the border, it was a pleasant journey. The city itself was breathtaking, not too full of tourists because of the chilly time of year. On the first night, we finished dinner fairly late and headed back to our hostel on the outskirts of town past the Vistula River. It was a weeknight in a mostly uninhabited part of the city, and the streets were dark and deserted. We were talking and laughing when we noticed two men in the distance heading our direction on the opposite side of the street. My friend made a comment about feeling nervous, and while I'm not normally easily spooked, I clenched my bag tighter. As they drew nearer, they suddenly changed direction and started crossing the street as if to confront us directly. I couldn't speak and I couldn't react--I found myself suddenly unable to move at all, with a desperate prayer in my throat--"Please, please, please don't let them come too near--don't let them touch us. And if they do, please let it be just our money they want." They grew closer, they were near, and without a word, they passed silently by. My friend let out a relieved laugh. "I really thought they were going to attack us!"--but I couldn't speak. We got back to the hostel, and I was too stiff with fear to even make my bed--my hands were useless. I had to just sit for 15 minutes or so while the adrenaline finished its rush through my body. It was an odd overreaction--I'm not exactly sure why I had become so terrified, although maybe the experience really was as menacing as it seemed. More than ten years after the fact, my memory is not so clear.
Most disturbingly, my own body had betrayed me. I couldn't have run, I couldn't have fought--I had frozen. I was useless--worse than useless--at defending myself. In nightmares, I have felt my legs turn sluggish while trying to run away, as if moving through jello. But at least I could move--here I had become totally helpless, and I couldn't consciously will myself back into control. I don't fully understand why that happened, but the two or three times that I've been truly fearful in my life have all had the same result. I have heard of fight or flight--but freeze? What on earth could be the biological explanation for the usefulness of that? According to wikipedia, "many animals freeze or play dead when touched in the hope that the predator will lose interest".* Yikes. I don't like to consider my survival prospects if I ever encountered real danger; fortunately, my few scary moments have always turned out to be false alarms.
(*Another source suggests that "tonic immobility may be useful when additional attacks are provoked by movement or when immobility may increase the chance of escaping, such as when a predator believes its prey to be dead and releases it." So maybe my body just knows I'm a crappy runner and an even crappier fighter and thinks, "eh--playing dead is the best defense I've got." )