Have you ever heard of normalcy bias? It's the phenomenon where people in the middle of disasters don't react because they assume a disaster isn't going on, despite all the evidence. For instance, they smell smoke, but they assume someone is burning something and just stay where they are. It makes sense -- you've been in a building where someone burned dinner probably dozens of times, but most of us haven't been in a building which was actually on fire. Your brain uses its past experiences to interpret the data it's getting.
I used to experience this. In fact, I pretty much assumed any fears I had were unreasonable, just me feeling scared for no reason, so I always ignored them. Scared of heights? Keep climbing that tree. Dark alley? Charge on through. I mean, I was a kid and I knew my parents wouldn't let me do anything really dangerous, and anyway I felt pretty sure that everything would turn out okay, because nothing bad had ever happened to me.
Then one day, when I was 17, I was climbing a ladder in my garage, which it turned out I hadn't set up properly. I felt scared as I started up the ladder. Then I ignored that feeling because "I always feel scared of stuff like this and it always turns out fine." Well, I was nearly at the top when it collapsed and I busted my face when I hit the ground. I'm lucky I wasn't seriously injured, but I did mess up my teeth, which I've been terribly self-conscious about ever since.
And ever since then, when I feel that little twinge of fear, I think, "It could be nothing -- but then again, that's what I thought that time on the ladder and I was wrong." Instead of feeling like disasters are normal, I'm constantly mistaking normal life for disasters. I'll walk past a book left on the stairs and get this eerie feeling of imagining myself in the future, after someone has tripped on that book and died, crying, "I saw the book, but I didn't pick it up, and now they're DEAD!" So I go back and pick up the book. It's probably good on some level, because I'm more careful than I used to be.
But on some level it's bad, because every time I go to bed at night, I can't go to sleep until I've put my ear right over Miriam and heard her breathe. I know the odds of her suddenly dying are low; but I can't help imagining myself finding her cold in the morning and thinking, "I didn't check her before I went to sleep." So until I check on her, I basically assume she's dead. This is probably not healthy.
There are some fears I don't let myself act on, even though I'm frightened. I know the risk of home invasion is vanishingly small, and I also know that getting up doublechecking all the locks isn't going to make me safer, so I stay in bed trying to calm myself down. I tell myself that if we are going to get killed by a crazy shooter who busts in in the middle of the night, I may as well be rested for the experience. But I've lost a lot of sleep for that one anyway, because I feel like my life is a movie, and I'm watching the heroine try to sleep and shouting "DON'T GO TO SLEEP! THERE'S A MURDERER IN THE KITCHEN!"
It's hard to say if this is "real" anxiety or just the nature of being an adult. Does everyone feel this way, once they no longer have the luxury of just assuming the grown-ups will make sure they don't get hurt? And if being less anxious would increase the risk that something bad happened to one of my kids -- well, I don't have that right, do I?
Some people use religion to reason their way out of anxiety, telling themselves that nothing will happen that God hasn't planned. But even assuming that's true, I still think it's an abdication of responsibility. We all know that bad stuff happens to good people. And people love to say that the day of their death is already determined by God, but in reality people are much more likely to die if they take stupid risks to ignore their health. You'll live longer if you buckle your seatbelt and don't smoke, and can you be sure that it's part of God's plan for you to be careless with your life?
Of course if you don't believe in God or an afterlife, it's that much worse because if you die, that's it. If your kids die, that's it, your irresponsibility has ended everything they were and everything they could have been. That's kind of a big burden to carry. No wonder modern parents are so famously neurotic. How can you not be?
I guess I'm just not sure how anxious I'm supposed to be. If I assume I'm safe, that's "normalcy bias" and I'm probably going to be the first one to die when the horror movie gets going. But if I assume I'm not safe, I'm going to spend my whole life worrying! I try to make my decisions based on rational risk-benefit analysis, but that doesn't stop my heart from racing when my kids climb on the jungle gym or run a fever for a second day in a row. I know how fast things can shift from "possibly unsafe" to "the ambulance can't possibly get here in time." I can't stop myself from imagining disaster--in fact, if I don't imagine the disaster, I can't assess whether I should take action to prevent it or not.
How anxious are you? Is it just a grown-up thing? What do you do to calm down?