Some years ago, during a period of, well, imbalance, I suffered from an inner ear disorder marked by symptoms of disequilibrium: vertigo, hearing loss and a constant ringing in my ear. The spinning sensation of my external environment, accompanied by a tilt in my gait, was terrifying. In fact, the fear was all-consuming.
To survive the onslaught of brain signals gone awry, I researched treatments and uncovered a body of medical literature that promoted literally thrusting your head into the position that caused the most disturbance. The treatment is based on the notion that the brain is wired to adapt spatially and does so at a greater capacity when nerve cells are firing at an increased rate. And it worked—I could often be seen rolling and tilting my head, eyes closed, grimacing while searching for a nearby support surface.
The point is that to overcome something difficult, you must do the very thing you fear. And I would say that is true, and it is certainly a truth I drew out of the experience of disequilibrium. But a more important revelation revealed itself: Before achieving purposeful discomfort, I had to have some soft negotiations with myself about what was really happening during the discomfort, which is to say, nothing. Nothing really happened. It’s almost unimaginable to believe that something that feels so awful, that is fully perceived by the body as real, is borne of no physical truth. Something can feel bad while doing nothing to you.
But no one approaches a really hard and unpleasant task with vigor and joyful anticipation, even if it will bring a certain gratifying result. I had to reduce the discomfort of slanting my head into a promised state of dizziness by becoming something of a clinical observer. Dizziness, especially abrupt and purposeful dizziness and its intensifying swirl of physical responses, comes on quickly. You cannot talk yourself through it while it hijacks your senses; you have to have a plan in advance and create a default mantra.
For me, I told myself that the sensations, though troubling, are not dangerous. Nothing bad was going to happen if I felt dizzy or if the room was spinning or slanted. It was just going to feel really bad. OK, I can do this.
Last week, I was retelling my “decent-into-dizziness” story to a student who is 10 days away from the bar exam. This student was likely rotating through what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. Bar students pack a lot of pressure into the exam’s purpose—mostly erroneously, but paralyzing nonetheless. My own experience taught me not to minimize that fear. Doing so would lessen my credibility and detract from the part of the exam that is meant to be most meaningful. The bar is supposed to be hard. It should be hard. But rather than try to avoid a certain cluster of reactions—crying, fretting, lashing out—I encourage my students to allow the feelings, because they are inevitable, but attach no truth to them. If they can take them at face value, that unspent energy can be transferred to more productive tasks, such as studying.
How much more energy could be freed for real living if we came to extract the perceived danger from the reality of its potential for true harm? That’s most of the fear we encounter: Something feels bad but isn’t dangerous. The balance comes in knowing the difference.