Fear: saving you from extinction since the dawn of humanity

Let me just say that I’m not exactly sure what FDR was thinking when he said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Really? There are a lot of things to be afraid of besides fear. In fact, fear is super useful. It’s the thing that kept our ancestors from playing with poisonous snakes. It’s the thing that keeps us from climbing the fence at the Grand Canyon for a better look. And it’s the thing that would cause most people to walk right out if they found themselves caught in a boxing ring with a boxer coming at them with flying fists. Fear has kept the human race from going extinct for 200,000 years. It may be one of the greatest evolutionary adaptations of all time. But sometimes that which was meant to preserve life gets in the way of really being alive.

These past few days, boxing has introduced me to fear in a new way. I’m not talking about the fear that we are all familiar with on a daily basis: the fear that we might lose our job, that our kids might get sick, that our partner might leave. I’m talking about life and death fear. Not fear of the thing that could possibly happen but the fear of the thing that is definitely happening right now in this very moment. The type of fear that sends 30+ hormones surging through your body in a split to get you ready to fight for your life or to get the f*** out of there. Primal fear. The thing an antelope experiences when it finds itself surrounded by a pride of lions. Fear that is not a feeling at all so much as a physical sensation. That is the fear I met in the boxing ring yesterday.

Allow me to digress: I failed to realize that losing at boxing is not at all like losing at other things. I’ve lost at a lot of things: games, competitions, you name it. I like to think that I’m an expert loser by now. But nothing compares to losing at boxing. In most sports, losing means you go home disappointed. Maybe you’re angry because the ref made a bad call and you lost the game. Maybe you feel really crappy because losing that game means you don’t move on to the finals. But in boxing, losing means you’ve been physically beaten. It means your life was in danger and you couldn’t stop the threat. Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but yesterday it came as a surprise to me.

I wasn’t beaten to a pulp, nor was I even knocked down, but my sparring partner laid some combinations on me that definitely did some damage, and it was clear that if anyone should be declared a winner, it wasn’t me. The sensation that came after our 6th round was what surprised me. I had anticipated a sense of defeat, disappointment with myself, or frustration the first time I got creamed in boxing—all of the things I normally feel after losing. I felt none of these. What I felt was purely physical—the feeling you have the second after you narrowly escape a deadly car crash. I wanted to cry and collapse on the mat, not because I’d lost, but because I had just fought for my life.

Now, I know that my trainer is not going to let me die, or even be seriously injured, in the ring. However, I doubt my body has anything more than a vague appreciation of this as it’s being accosted by another human being. So, recognizing the threat, my body sends an urgent message to my brain that it’s under attack, and a fantastic number of things happen in a fraction of a second to help me survive. My brain tells my sympathetic nervous system (the thing that regulates my internal organs) that it’s go time. My sympathetic nervous system in turn sends out other signals and releases adrenaline, a chemical that gets my heart racing and raises my blood pressure. There’s some more back and forth between my brain and body, ultimately causing the release of a myriad of hormones. These hormones cause my pupils to dilate so my eyes let in as much light as possible, they make most of my muscles tense up to get me ready to fight or flee, but relax the little muscles that contract my blood vessels in order for my lungs to take in more oxygen, they shut down nonessential processes in my body like food digestion so that all the energy in my body goes to the survival strategy, and they make it nearly impossible for me to focus on anything except the boxer beating on me. If you think for a moment about how much happens in just milliseconds of a perceived threat to completely change the chemistry of your body, it’s absolutely incredible.

Pardon me, my geeky science nerd side just got the better of me for a minute there. Back to boxing.

All those chemical changes are what cause that primal fear feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another and that I sensed in the ring yesterday. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear. I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll get back in the ring. In fact, if my nose wasn’t still so sore today, I’d find someone to spar with this morning. But why do I do this to myself? This question was at the forefront of my mind in the ring yesterday. Why voluntarily subject myself fear and pain? I mean, even in the ring, I could have avoided such physical abuse. As we’ve already established, I’m a decent runner, and running around the ring for 3 minutes is child’s play compared to running 26.2 miles. But the thing is, if you’re just going to dance around the ring, keeping a comfortable space between you and your opponent, you may as well just get out of the ring. Find a different sport (I think this is when most people say, “well, duh. Thanks, I will”). But there is a thrill being in the ring that I can’t really describe. It is the feeling of being really alive. It is the feeling of crazy, passionate, risk-it-all love. It is going all in and burning the bridges behind you. It is like anything that is really worth doing—you do it in spite of all your fears. You do it even though the instinct of self-preservation says to do the opposite. You come in close to play the game, knowing full well that coming close means you’ll get hit. You hope it’s not too hard, and you hope you can defend it when it comes, but you know it’s coming. And even though at the sound of the bell, you may be battered, bruised, and exhausted beyond belief, you get back up and go in for another round.



The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” – Legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato