It is human nature to avoid discomfort. So much so that I believe it might be the largest motivator of your, my own and overall human behavior.
Yet, beyond fear lies the riches of life and understanding fear therefore comes with enormous value.
Initially, I found hard to pin down what discomfort is in the first place. Here’s what I came up with:
States of Discomfort
Discomfort seems to appear in three forms: physical discomfort, emotional discomfort and fear.
Fear can be the social fears, hence the fear of rejection or exclusion of “the tribe”, fear of discomfort (fear of fear, fear of emotional discomfort and fear of physical discomfort). Anxiety as the fear of inadequacy or fear of failing, fear of danger to one’s own life, fear of loss, or fear of being wrong up to the fear of loss of world view. Fear of danger or the unknown are very similar to the fear of death.
Emotional discomfort entails mostly sadness and disappointments, feeling of loss and grief. Frustration, hopelessness, discontent, dread and similar emotions might fit into this category as well. Count fear itself as an emotional state, then it’s a cycle.
Physical discomfort is anything from pain, itchiness, nausea or weakness. Freezing, hunger and thirst are often connected to fear of death.
Discomfort Avoidance Strategy
Without efforts to actively counteract it, we seem to be prone to avoid discomfort. And it all condenses down to one overarching discomfort: fear.
It supersedes the other’s as the fear of discomfort causes us to avoid the discomfort, a fear of discomfort is ubiquitous and justified at all time, discomfort is always around the corner. The only way to avoid it is to vegetate in a state of comfort, a distraction resulting in momentary absence of fear, state of focus, or dwelling in a situation that you are so familiar with that you do not expect any discomfort.
Fear is meant to help us survive, originating from times where it was literally a matter of life or death to stick to the tribe, not get left behind, avoid sabre tooth tigers and not break an ankle.
Nowadays, fear of discomfort mostly leads to escapism, a feeling of being stuck in life and
Motivation to Overcome Fear
Back in those days, overcoming fear was rewarded just as it is today: Going out and risking your life to hunt for the tribe will be rewarded by those who are allowed to stay comfortable.
Today, you will most certainly be paid to do work that allows others to stay comfortable. The most basic example I can come up with is cleaning someone’s house or maintaining their WordPress website, so they don’t have to :)
Additionally, humans got the reward system. Dopamine ensures that we momentarily push out of comfort to achieve another level of comfort–or avoid greater discomfort. This might be climbing a tree to reach fruit to avoid hunger or momentarily forget about fears in a kick of sugar to getting that next freelance paycheck or getting that job for the financial safety that relieves…
… the financial and existential fears (a modern form of fear of life). I once heard that people who are “hangry” literally subconsciously fear dying of hunger.
What happens if you don’t eat for the rest of the day… or all of next week? Ever thought of that? Probably not, most of us don’t. But you can go 28 days without food and not die! Most of us just assume, taught by our upbringing, that not eating is bad and puts us in danger, which might explain our bad temper when dinner is late.
In modern society our primal fears are strongly exaggerated, there is little that actually threatens our life and if we ask “what could go wrong?”, the answer is more often than not “there’s a small chance we might experience some minor discomfort”, yet our limbic system and amygdala respond as if we are about to jump off a cliff. Ever sent an important email and felt that zing after the brief hesitation to send it off?–Dear amygdala, is that adrenalin really saving my life here?
But the reactions of our limbic system can be–and often are–overridden by our frontal lobe, where logical thinking allows us to consciously disregard the signals of our body and instinctual fears to make contrary decisions. 1
Dealing with Fear
Fear in modern times is mostly a matter of perspective. And perspective can often be gained by following through on assumed consequences, weighting their likelihood and realising that some discomfort does not harm anyone and does not actually mean you are going to lose anything important.
Back to the email, what if there was a spelling mistake or what if something sounded more harsh than intended, what if you didn’t formulate everything you wanted the other party to know? Think of the resulting situations and imagine what it would feel like. It seems all more dramatic at first and the unlikely uncomfortable conversation due to some unfortunate mishap is bearable.
So are cold, heat, hunger, soreness, financial insecurity in most cases–as in to the extent the you can expect in our modern society. Most of us are fortunate enough to have little more to fear than imprisonment, a loss of control to addictive substances, and a few other avoidable serious threats.
Fear will always be there, but the things we do in spite of fear yield the most fulfilling rewards of life.
- Some tools I can recommend for practicing putting your consciousness into a state of control: “Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal, Meditation and the Wim Hoff method and cold showers.