Fear, Danger, and Illness: What We Can Learn From One Astronaut’s Experience

“What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? Or another way to say is what’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done and why did you do it?”

That’s how Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield opens his TED Talk, during which he shares his harrowing tale of going temporarily blind while working outside the International Space Station. I don’t know about you, but I’d pee my pants. Space is terrifyingly awesome and the simple thought of being in such a situation makes my head spin. But, Hadfield made it through the entire extravehicular activity. How? He argues it’s because astronauts are drilled and trained to recognize the difference between perceived fear and danger.

I’d argue that illness has a similar effect. Most people can think about what it must be like to float weightlessly in space just as well as they can think about what it might be like to fall ill with something that you will never be cured of. It’s foreign, alien, and unknown. But, unlike finding yourself blind in space, illness can strike any family and any group of friends. It’s the big gorilla in every room that no one wants to ponder. Which is why Hadfield’s experience can help those facing illness tackle the fear they see in the mirror, and the danger lurking in their own DNA.

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I don’t think that any sick person can say they are the same person before and after diagnosis. I’ve always battled anxiety, but my journey to finding out my brain is malformed changed me in so many ways, some I’ve yet to discover. Knowing that you will forever battle your body can be a hopeless kind of situation; I remember the moment I realized that there would be many nights where I could not feed myself, could not walk under my own power, and would have to make sacrifices that others can never understand. I spent a good, long while being afraid of every headache and doctor’s visit, of being alone, going without medication…of simply being afraid of everything. But, that’s not living. That’s wading and trudging, not living. This understanding is the line drawn between fear and danger

Before you read on, we’re gonna do an exercise. Grab a piece of paper or open a document on your device and make a  list of things you are afraid of. Below is a page from my journal; spiders, tornadoes, and unemployment all found their way onto my list, as did migraines and surgery. But, as Hadfield explains, being afraid of something isn’t necessarily a practical reaction if what you fear does not pose any danger.

How do you deal with fear versus danger?

Hadfield uses spiders as an example:

A lot of people are afraid of spiders. I think you should be afraid of spiders — spiders are creepy and they’ve got long, hairy legs, and spiders like this one, the brown recluse — it’s horrible. If a brown recluse bites you,you end with one of these horrible, big necrotic things on your leg and there might be one right now sitting on the chair behind you, in fact. And how do you know? And so a spider lands on you,and you go through this great, spasmy attack because spiders are scary. But then you could say, well is there a brown recluse sitting on the chair beside me or not? I don’t know. Are there brown recluses here? So if you actually do the research, you find out that in the world there are about 50,000 different types of spiders, and there are about two dozen that are venomous out of 50,000.And if you’re in Canada, because of the cold winters here in B.C., there’s about 720, 730 different types of spiders and there’s one — one — that is venomous, and its venom isn’t even fatal, it’s just kind of like a nasty sting. And that spider — not only that, but that spider has beautiful markings on it, it’s like “I’m dangerous. I got a big radiation symbol on my back, it’s the black widow.” So, if you’re even slightly careful you can avoid running into the one spider — and it lives close the ground, you’re walking along, you are never going to go through a spider web where a black widow bites you. Spider webs like this, it doesn’t build those, it builds them down in the corners. And its a black widow because the female spider eats the male; it doesn’t care about you. So in fact, the next time you walk into a spiderweb, you don’t need to panic and go with your caveman reaction.The danger is entirely different than the fear.

Now, let’s apply this reasoning to migraines or fibromyalgia. Migraines are a perceived danger like spiders; you can avoid the dangerous spiders by heeding their colorful warning signs. Migraines can be dealt with in much the same way. I know certain situations are perfect breeding ground and having snacks on hand is a must. Now, go back to your list and mark the items that actually pose a threat to your health or well-being. I found the majority of what I wrote down are perceived dangers. Being unemployed is avoidable by continuing to do my job to the best of my ability. Packing my tote bag with emergency medications cuts down on the migraines. Speaking regularly and honestly with my neurologist limits complications.

The things that pose a real danger, like tornadoes, are completely out of my control. The earthquake we felt in the midwest two weeks ago left me a complete mess, worrying if another tremor was right around the corner. I finally relaxed when Husband pointed out that worrying only steals away the day’s possibilities. “Be prepared, not scared,” is the best advice he’s ever given me!

Knowing and confronting the things you fear and analyzing their threat to you is essentially the same thing as NASA’s training astronauts for every eventuality. Hadfield did go blind in space, but the crew had practiced maneuvers and had a plan for that situation. You can do much the same by creating self-care toolkits, creating plans for medical emergencies, and wearing medical identification tags or jewelry.

Thinking of life in general in this way has greatly altered how I now perceive life. Being sick does in fact suck, but you cannot always be terrified of what lays around the corner. Have a plan, and then get back to living your life.

“But the key to that is by looking at the difference between perceived danger and actual danger,where is the real risk? What is the real thing that you should be afraid of? Not just a generic fear of bad things happening. You can fundamentally change your reaction to things so that it allows you to go places and see things and do things that otherwise would be completely denied to you …”

If you’re interested, I’d highly recommend listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast that delves into What We Fear.


What are you most afraid of? How can you now face that fear?

Here’s to a happy and relaxing weekend, however you plan to spend it.

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