The Ostrich Head Syndrome

Throughout my life here on the planet, I have come to find that the most paralyzing thing in my life is fear. 

The fight or flight adrenal response

Everybody has an adrenal response to fear and most people refer to it as ‘fight or flight’.  This is where you are confronted by a lion and you either put your dukes up, or you run like an olympian away from the danger


The response system

While those are the two most common responses, they are not the only responses.  There is also the seemingly involuntary ‘freeze’ response.  This is where you would be confronted by a lion and your jaw drops, your muscles seize, and you cannot move. 

Think of an opossum… they freeze when they are scared, which looks like they are playing dead.  Freezing works for them, when the predator sees this, they get bored and move on. 

opossum playing dead
Opossum playing dead

(Nerdy side fact: the opossum is not to be confused with a possum, you can find the difference here.)  The difference for humans is that the freeze response doesn’t help with most situations.  We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) play dead… it freaks people out. 

Humans can freeze in many ways, for me it is inaction.  Sometimes I am literally frozen in place, but that is a different topic together.  Most times it is passivity and can look like apathy.  The truth is, I care too much, I don’t have a lack of concern for anything, my brain just chooses my battles for me sometimes. 

For instance:  If I am running low on funds, and I know I have some big bills coming up, I will suddenly develop ‘ostrich head syndrome’… I stick my head in the sand until I feel the danger has passed.  By the time I look up again, my bills may be late and my stress level just increased.  Not helpful.


(I promise I’m done with the animal metaphors…)

Learn to Face your Fears

I have had to learn to face my fears.  In DBT it’s called “opposite to emotion action”.  When I am afraid of something, whether it be a fear of going to a certain restaurant, a fear of telling someone I am upset, or simply a fear of not having enough money to pay the bills, I have to be mindful of it and do it anyway.  The more I challenge my fears – by going to that restaurant, asserting myself, and paying what bills I can – the more I realize that none of those events had the power to harm me. 

No one likes to be uncomfortable, and facing our fears makes us uncomfortable.  The truth of the matter is that those feelings pass, like a wave, they swell, hit a peak, and then fall again.  In my experience, the temporary stress that is caused by confronting an issue is less bothersome than the long-term stress that is caused by the ostrich-head syndrome. 


For example, I go to a gym that is supposed to be a “judgment-free zone”.  I ended up becoming friends with one of the employees and she told me that some of the male employees were judging people’s bodies as they walked through the door. I found this out 3 weeks ago, and I haven’t been back since. I was terrified that if I went in, I would be judged and the thought was humiliating.

The stress that I went through from worrying, losing endurance and strength, and missing out on the endorphins that exercise releases was way more of a hindrance than the momentary discomfort that I felt when I went to the gym this morning.  Honestly, I walked in and found out that those guys don’t even work there anymore.  Facing my fear had way more of a pay-off than hiding from it.  It is just hard to remember that in the moment. 

Is fear bad?

Don’t get me wrong, some fears are completely legitimate.  Being afraid to walk across a busy interstate is justified, you will probably get hit by a car. I am talking about fears that are not justified.  Fearing Applebees is not a justified fear – It cannot hurt me, put me in danger, or in any way harm my well-being.  I am in no way suggesting that people go and put themselves in dangerous situations, I am challenging you to look at your fears, assess if they are logical, and then face them if they are not serving you.