How Jack Shepard Taught Me to Get Through A Freakout

Whatever your personal feelings might be for the polar-bear-random, time-shifting awesomeness that was Lost (clearly I was a fan), it was a show that explored many deep philosophical and moral issues.  You could draw any number of lessons and personal revelations from each episode.

But lately, it’s actually a short little clip from the very first episode that’s been significantly changing the way I approach my life.  And whether or not you’re the kind that can still recite The Numbers by heart, it’s a concept I’d like to share with you, because I think it could help you, too.


Jack’s 5-Second Free-Fall Policy

In the very first episode, Dr. Jack Shepard realizes he has a wound from the crash of Flight 815 that he can’t reach to stitch up himself.  Seeing total-stranger Kate coming through the forest, he implores her to help him.  Kate is less than eager, but she grits her teeth and gets to it.

To help calm her nerves while she’s working, Jack (who’s already proven himself to be a rock in a crisis) shares with Kate his secret for dealing with fear:

“Fear’s sort of an odd thing. When I was in residency, my first solo procedure was a spinal surgery on a 16-year-old kid, a girl. And at the end, after 13 hours, I was closing her up and I—I accidentally ripped her dural sac, shredded the base of the spine where all the nerves come together—membrane as thin as tissue.  And so it ripped open and the nerves just spilled out of her like angel hair pasta, spinal fluid flowing out of her, and I…the terror was just so crazy.  So real.  And I knew I had to deal with it.  So I just made a choice.  I’d let the fear in, let it take over, let it do its thing—but only for five seconds; that’s all I was going to give it.  So I started to count:  One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.  Then it was gone.  I went back to work, sewed her up, and she was fine.”

~Jack Shephard (“Pilot, Part 1“)

Kate uses Jack’s 5-second technique to deal with her fear later in the episode when she’s cornered by the island’s mysterious “smoke monster.” But it can apply to any monster, J.J.-Abrams-created or no.

Some of my own personal monsters have been rearing up pretty hard against me the past few weeks: social anxiety, performance anxiety, doubting my abilities, stressing over the future.  And one day, out of the blue, Jack’s 5-second trick came to mind, so I gave it a try.

And I have to say, I think the good doc was on to something.


The Benefits of Wallowing (Momentarily)

Too often, we feel like we have to fight our negative emotions.  We think we should be able to get past them, get over them, be stronger than them—so we spend all our energy and effort trying to make it so.

We shout at ourselves like boot camp sergeants.  We give ourselves pep talks or tell ourselves to “be reasonable.”  We squinch our eyes shut, clench our fists tight, and try to will ourselves to be totally impervious to feelings we’re obviously feeling quite strongly.

It doesn’t really work.  If anything, it makes them eat away at us even more.

Because trying to pretend we can just ignore or “get over” negative emotions only wears down our energy and keeps our focus right smack on the emotions.  What if instead of fighting them, we acknowledged them, let them happen, and then learned to keep moving in spite of them?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do lately, and I’ve been pretty surprised by the results.


Learning to be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

I suffer from some pretty fierce social anxiety (a post in itself that I’m working on)—which means I can get stuck in a paralysis of fear before any party, dinner, or even casual coffee with a friend.

I’ve tried to shake myself out of this every way I can think of.  I remind myself that this happens all the time and things always turn out o.k.  I try to think of all the fun I’ll have and the great new people I’ll meet.  I berate myself.  I tell myself I’m being ridiculous.  I try to force the anxiety to go away, but it doesn’t.  Because I know all of these things in my head, but fear is a powerful thing.  It sweeps right over logic.  It grabs a hold of you and overshadows everything else.

Fighting it did nothing but make me feel even more anxious, plus incredibly frustrated with myself for not being able to “just get over it.”

So, instead, I’ve been applying a variation of Jack’s 5-second technique.

When a social anxiety attack hits, I let myself feel it.  Instead of trying to ignore or fight the fear, I let myself picture every awful, embarrassing, or awkward thing that could possibly happen at the event I’m going to.  I let myself reside in the worry until I begin to realize it can exist without killing me, I can feel it without being paralyzed by it.  Once I come to that realization, I can effectively tell myself, “Yep, this sucks, but once you get there and start talking to everyone, you’ll wind up having a good time.  You always do.  In the meantime, just do the best you can to bear with the discomfort.  It’ll all be over soon.”

Do I stop feeling nervous?  Nope.  But I’m o.k. with feeling nervous.  I’m able to ride out the anxiety and get myself to the event in spite of it.

I can’t reach this state by trying to fight the fear or argue against it.  I can reach it by acknowledging the fact that the fear is real, it has a hold on me, but it doesn’t have to control me.  Oddly enough, dwelling in the fear (for a little while) helps me step outside of it.  It lets me say, “O.k., so I’ve done the worrying bit—now what?”


Embrace the Smoke Monster

Whatever monster is threatening to overwhelm you, sometimes the best way to fight it is not to fight it.

Instead, try letting yourself acknowledge the fact that what you’re feeling is real.  Let yourself really live in it for a measured while—no struggling, no resisting, no judging yourself.

Then, call “time!” on yourself, and keep moving.

It may still be there, but it will be easier to push ahead in spite of it.

Give it a try some time.  It’s doctor-recommended.

Image: WCM 1111 / Flickr

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  • guest

    wonderful post. thank you so much for this. I’m going to give it a shot

    • Definitely do.  I’ve been so happy with how much it’s helped me.

  • Nicole

    Great post, Cordelia. I practice yoga, Buddhism and meditation and this concept is at the heart of all 3 – sitting with discomfort. I think many of us feel the same way about social situations, they produce a lot of anxiety. It’s great that you’ve learned to let yourself feel the anxiety. For me, it doesn’t work every time. I still try to avoid it. But I make a conscious effort to acknowledge it and maybe the next time, move through it rather than around it.

    • You hit it right on the head with “through it rather than around it.”  Some emotions we can’t “overcome,” but we can learn to “sit in the discomfort” and be o.k. anyway.  Good luck with your own efforts!  With your great background in things like yoga and meditation, you have a strong foundation for dealing with all sorts of emotions and experiences.

  • Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve been looking for a better way to dealing with anxiety lately. I’ll definitely have to give this a try 😀

    • Personally, it’s the only thing I’ve found that really works for me.  I’ve tried everything else under the sun–giving up, letting go, and saying “O.k., I’ll just be alright with this” has made a world of difference.

      Like I said, the worry is still there, but I’m finally able to act in spite of it.  And each time I act, next time’s worry decreases a little!

  • I have this same struggle with social situations – the fear of awkwardness. And I agree with you that the most effective way of dealing with it is to challenge yourself by saying “What if all my fears are realized? Will it be the end of the world?” And because you’re open to things being crappy at first, you feel the courage to go forward. It’s never as bad as I think.

    • Exactly!  Stay tuned for an upcoming QUIT on the social anxiety issue–I know it’s one that a ton of people struggle with.

  • Agnese

    I like how this sounds. I feel like I’ve been trying this lately without quite recognizing the pattern: considering the worst possible effect from a trip, a purchase, a decision – and thus testing if I can handle that feeling. Just knowing that I can makes it easier. 

    I recently read an article/essay about something similar: (don’t judge the title)

    Ooh, and I liked the “It’s doctor-recommended.” ending!

    • Wow, that is one intense article!  It puts all of my “monsters” in serious perspective…

      The “what’s the worst that could happen” visualization can be a great help.  Yes, it worries you even more momentarily, but then you start thinking of ways you’d deal with the worst-case scenarios if they happened.  You learn to be comfortable with the fact that you’re not in control, but you’re strong and can get through that.  And it makes all of the less-worrisome outcomes seem not nearly so looming.

      • Agnese

        Yeah, same here – it made me happy I at least wasn’t dealing with *that*. But hey, like the Soviets say, we all have our own Siberia…

        Thanks for the reply! I like how you respond to all (or nearly all?) comments. Dialogues are fun!

  • Cat

    Excellent post. I am SOOOO much better about this sort of thing than I used to be. There was actually a time in my life when I swore to a therapist that emotions didn’t bother me because I simply didn’t have any. Oh, the legacy of my extremely dysfunctional childhood!

    Anyhow, that was 25 years ago and I admit that I still struggle with it. I think that my general problem in this area is that my defenses were really, REALLY good. So I can be well into my “running away” strategy without ever consciously realizing that there’s a feeling I’m avoiding.

    I guess like many things in life, it’s like an onion… the more work you do, the more you realize that there is still so much work to do!

    Hugs to you…


    • I’m so glad to hear you’re making progress! You’re right–the path to self-improvement is definitely a matter of discovering more and more the deeper you go…but just being on that journey is worth it. It sounds like you’ve had a lot to overcome, and it’s awesome that you’ve become so self-aware. Keep on pushing forward!

      Hugs back!

  • Cat

    p.s. Maybe you’d enjoy my feeble attempt to get poetic in describing a dream that I once had on this topic:

    • I love it! The images are so gripping and powerful, I felt like I was living the dream myself!