Conservation of anxiety

Events scale. The magnitude of our impact and the impact of our decisions can vary wildly, depending on the stakes. You can decide which chocolate bar to buy or you can decide whether or not to take a job.

Our fear, though, can't scale. It doesn't work that way.

The screaming fear in your stomach before you give a speech to 12 kids in the fifth grade is precisely the same fear a presidential candidate feels before the final debate. The fight-or-flight reflex that speeds up your heart when you're about to get a speeding ticket you don't deserve isn't very different than the chemical reaction in the brain of an accused (but innocent) murder suspect when the jury walks in.

Bigger stakes can't lead to more fear.

And, in an interesting glitch, more fear often tricks us into thinking we're dealing with bigger stakes.

Not only that, but we have trouble overlapping our fearful moments. If that sales call is right down the street, you will probably put more anxiousness into the preparation for the meeting than if it's two plane rides and ferry away, because you'll be reserving some of your available agita for the transport.

Fear has very few gradations and it has a ceiling. We evolved to have an alert system that kept us alive, but while it's powerful, it's crude.

This is why we're able to teach ourselves to confidently give a speech to 10,000 or make life or death decisions in the battlefield. Fear is fear, and once we learn to work with it, we can scale the stakes.

All of which is a way to remind yourself that emotions kick in and then we start telling ourselves a story about how important/make-or-break/high stakes this next event is. Fear floods our brain with chemicals, we go on high alert and then rationalize that fear by describing just how vital this thing we're anxious about is.

No need to fool yourself. We all have a limited fear vocabulary, and it tends to yell.