Space Anxiety - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Space Anxiety

When I was in high school my physics class was hard for me because I had a hard time thinking about planetary bodies. I could do the math and understood the concepts, but thinking about space was just a little too much for me. I would begin to feel a panicky and dizzying sensation when I thought about astronomical sizes, about other planets, and about the total number of galaxies and planets in the universe. Whenever we had physics problems that involved large planetary bodies I had to push past this space anxiety and think about hypothetical tennis balls rather than Mercury or Jupiter.
Today I have mostly gotten over my space anxiety. I can watch Crash Course Astronomy with Phil Plait and read his blog. I can think about space, listen to podcasts about deep space, and imagine the huge vastness of space without spiraling into an existential crisis. But I have never been in space before, and according to Mary Roach, many astronauts experience a similar type of space anxiety, but on an entirely new level once they have left earth’s atmosphere.
Roach writes, “every now and then, you do come across astronauts who describe an anxiety unique to space. It’s not fear (though apparently astrohobia, fear of space and stars, does exist). It’s more of an intellectual freak-out, a cognitive overload. The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming, wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger.”
Space anxiety for me occurred in a similar way, but I was not actually venturing into deep space. I was only imagining deep space from a small classroom in Reno, Nevada. I assume that the intellectual freak-out that comes form knowing how small and temporary our lives are compared to the universe itself is much worse when floating in the vacuum of space, confronted with a view of the world from the outside.
The cognitive overload that comes from our discoveries and exploration of space is the result of the size distortions of our lives. For nearly all of human history the space beyond our planet was unknown and unimportant. All that mattered was what was on Earth, but we now know that there is so much more out there. So little of what takes place on our planet will ever matter in the great vastness of space. So little of what humans throughout history have believed seems to be of any importance or relevance when we think about a hundred trillion galaxies. For my high school self, for some astronauts, and for many many people, these considerations don’t inspire awe and wonder, but trigger anxiety, overwhelm the mind, and shake foundational beliefs and understandings of life and the universe.
Dread Risks - Joe Abittan

Dread Risks

Over the course of 2020 we watched COVID-19 shift from a dread risk to a less alarming risk. To some extent, COVID-19 became a mundane risk that we adjusted to and learned to live with. Our initial reactions to COVID-19, and our later discontent but general acceptance reveal interesting ways in which the mind works. Sudden and unexplained deaths and risks are terrifying, while continual risk is to some extent ignored, even if we face greater risk from dangers we ignore.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer describes dread risks and our psychological reactions by writing, “low-probability events in which many people are suddenly killed trigger an unconscious psychological principle: If many people die at one point in time, react with fear and avoid that situation.” Dread risks are instances like terrorist attacks, sudden bridge collapses, and commercial food contamination events. A risk that we did not consider is thrust into our minds, and we react strongly by avoiding something we previously thought to be safe.

 

An unfortunate reality of dread risks is that they distract us and pull our energy and attention away from ongoing and more mundane risks. This has been a challenge as we try to keep people focused on limiting COVID-19 and not simply accepting deaths from the disease the way we accept deaths from car crashes, gun violence, and second hand smoke exposure. Gigerenzer continues, “But when as many or more die distributed over time, such as in car and motorbike accidents, we are less likely to be afraid.” Dread risks trigger fears and responses that distributed risks don’t.

 

This psychological bias drove the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s and we are still paying the prices for those wars. The shift of COVID-19 in our collective consciousnesses from a dread risk to a distributed risk lead to mass political rallies, unwise indoor gatherings, and other social and economic events where people contracted the disease and died even though they should have known to be more cautious. Reacting appropriately to a dread risk is difficult, and giving distributed risks the attention and resources they deserve is also difficult. The end result is poor public policy, poor individual decision-making, and potentially the loss of life as we fail to use resources in a way that saves the most lives.

Don’t Run Out To Meet Your Suffering

I’m not sure what it is about American culture today, but we seem to be really good at worrying about almost everything. We fear lots of uncertainties and spend a lot of time uptight about things that might go wrong. While a  certain level of worry is ok, being what encourages us to use calendars, set reminders, and buy life insurance, we often slip into continual dread and fear that everything is going to crash.

 

“How often has the unexpected happened!” Writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic, “How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?”

 

The first line of the quote above is where many of us seem  to live our lives, at least when we are dealing with fear and anxiety. We worry about the wrongs that could happen and about the misfortune that could strike at any moment. Ruminating in this state has the power to push us into depression, ruin our health, and deteriorate our relationships, potentially even bringing about the terrible outcomes we originally feared.

 

But that is not all of Seneca’s quote. What we believe is certain to happen often isn’t. What we predict won’t always come to pass, and while sometimes that may be a huge negative, there is no reason to live within that negativity before it has reached us. We shouldn’t run forward and live with what we fear will happen, or live with the fear the something we terrible will unexpectedly happen before it has. Don’t run out to meet your suffering.

 

Seneca continues, “Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.” 

 

All we have in life is the current moment. We can generally anticipate the range of things that will happen in the next moment of our lives and we can build smart plans for the future, but we live in the here and now, not in the past and not in the future our minds are planning. The good that we hope for may play out, but things may also go poorly. If we constantly live ahead of our current moment, we will be distraught by the possible bad things that could happen. Seneca encourages us to remember that the good and the bad might not come, and that as a response we should lean toward being hopeful and use the current moment to try to shape a positive future. Don’t be stuck ruminating over the negative what-ifs of the future and ultimately ruin where you are right now.

The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.

 

But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”

 

To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

When You Live With Your Mind in the Future, You Will Miss the Future When it is Here

I can remember a time as an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada when I was becoming a bit depressed and frustrated by the fact that the excitement and magic of life seem to be disappearing as the reality (and banality) of work and earning a pay-check set in. I was working at a restaurant to make money, taking classes that were just ok, and worrying constantly about what my future would look like. I wanted to have fun and exciting things to live for, but it was becoming clear to me that my life would likely be quite boring in many ways. I was recognizing and understanding that I would not be a Marvel superhero and every day would not be an action packed adventure in the most interesting places on the planet.

I was not living in the present moment and enjoying the positive pieces of my life. I was stuck in a future mindset, worrying about realities that did not exist and unable to experience the present moment. I was exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to avoid becoming in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh writes, “Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.”

We can spend all our time thinking about the future, ruminating on the past, and interrogating our present self in a way that worries about the thoughts that we have. Or, we can work to become more aware of the present moment, of the smallest details of our current activity, and of the experiences we have at this very moment. Living in a different time (by spending all our mental energy in the past or future – or even by thinking about how dreary our lives are compared to the perfect lives lived by our friends on Facebook) is what drains the magic and the wonder out of life. When we cannot see the fortune of the present moment, then nothing is of value to us and we cannot actually live.

Hanh also writes, “If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by you, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present.” This was the state I found myself in during my undergraduate degree. I would look ahead and be excited about a new movie, a basketball game, or the weekend, but because I had not trained my mind to live in the present, that moment would fly by me and I would be worried about the drought of exciting events that would follow the event, and I would fail to enjoy the actual thing and the actual moment that I had looked forward to. Rather than bring me joy and meaning, the present moment was merely a shadow while the future loomed as a tidal wave of fear and depression. Turning inward and becoming more self-aware allowed me to begin seeing the present moment, and seeing the present moment restored the joy and value of small things, such as reading, writing, a short walk, a good exercise, or even just a conversation with a friend. These experiences are the only real things in life (at least as they happen) and the magic is in fully experiencing and living these moments.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.