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ZOE FRANCESCA I had a client who’s in her 90s, such a delightful person, and she loves going to the zoo. So we’re at the zoo, there was an old sky tram, and it looks like a ski lift. It’s open. You know, you could fall out. However I’m looking at it, and I’m seeing you know, it’s not that far off the ground. And look there’s babies and toddlers, there’s grandparents with their grandchildren, and everyone looks so relaxed and happy. I could go on this with my client, of course I could. So I turned to my client and let’s just call her let’s call her, Mavis. I turn to Mavis and I say Mavis, “Would you like to go on that sky tram?” and she says. “Oh yes! Oh yes!” I said, “Great. Let’s get on.” So I get her out of the wheelchair and into the lift. And as soon as we touch off, this panic attack sets in where I just all I can think about is, I’m going to fall out. She’s going to fall out. We are literally over the lions, and giraffes, and all these animals and it’s supposed to be so fun. But I am gripping—I’m sweating like crazy, I’m gripping the bar like crazy, and curling up my toes and my eyes are so tightly shut. But I’m saying to her, “Oh this is so nice. Isn’t this beautiful!?” And she’s saying, “Oh, yes! Look! Look!” And I cannot open my eyes for the life of me.
And when we get to the halfway point, I call out to the person who’s there, “Okay, we’re getting off. We’re getting off.” And they say, “No, stop! Stop!” And they’re waving their arms, “You can’t nobody can get off here! It’s impossible!” And I said, “We we have to get off. It’s an emergency. And so this poor teenager who’s working says okay. And they stopped the whole thing. And we get off. And Mavis looks at me and says, ‘What’s happening!?” I said, “Look how beautiful it is! I just, we need to appreciate this view! It’s so beautiful I need to just stop and really look around!” And she says, “Okay!”
DACHER KELTNER As you might imagine, our guest this week, Zoe Francesca, had an overwhelming fear of heights. Riding sky trams was not her idea of fun— Especially not with her clients. Zoe is an end-of-life doula. You know how traditional doulas guide women through the birth process? End-of-life doulas actually do the very hard work of guiding people through their deaths.
Zoe’s our Happiness Guinea Pig today. On each episode of our show, we have a happiness guinea pig try a research tested practice to bring more feelings of joy and connection into their life. And for her practice she chose to do something that got right to the hard stuff in her life—she chose a practice specifically designed to help overcome her fears. Like fear of heights.
Zoe, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
ZOE FRANCESCA I’m so glad to be here. Thank you, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER I had never heard of an end of life doula. What is it? What do you do?
ZOE FRANCESCA An end of life doula supplements the work of hospice. We come in you know hopefully months before the person is actively dying get to know them a little bit. Find out what are their fears? What are their obstacles? What are they concerned about worried about? And we try to address those one by one, over time.
DACHER KELTNER Our associate producer Annie Berman joined you on a visit to one of your clients who’s struggling with dementia.
MIMI: I don’t know whether he’s pulling a fast one on me, or I’m really being fed facts.
ZOE: No, it’s true. It’s true. It’s just hard to keep – you know, when you get to a certain point in life, I think it’s hard to keep all the facts straight. And maybe it’s not that important anymore. You know?
MIMI: Well, I guess it’s not that important anymore.
ZOE: You remember the essential things that make you you. They’re never going to go away.
MIMI: I have a pretty happy memory of life. My life was not a tragedy.
ZOE: You know, some people are like that, and I think you’re fortunate.
MIMI: You think I’m fortunate?
ZOE: I do. I do.
MIMI: Oh, I hope so. I hope so.
ZOE FRANCESCA There’s a saying that we die the way that we lived. And I I see that that’s true.
DACHER KELTNER How so?
ZOE FRANCESCA I see that people who haven’t confronted their fears are afraid, and that people who have are less afraid. Right. I see that all the time.
ZOE FRANCESCA A lot of people are afraid of pain. And a lot of people are afraid of not existing.
DACHER KELTNER Oh, that! That one always gets me late at night.
ZOE FRANCESCA Yeah. I mean confronting my own fear of death has been a big part of my life.
DACHER KELTNER And did you start this incredible work with a pretty deep fear of dying?
ZOE FRANCESCA Oh yeah. Oh, yeah. Originally yes. I was so afraid of death that I just I knew that I didn’t want to get to the end of my life without having dealt with that.
DACHER KELTNER So it’s very fitting that as our happiness guinea pig, you decided to tackle your own fears with the ‘overcoming a fear’ practice. You start by exposing yourself to the fear in small doses, in a safe context. Then you do it again, and again, until that fear subsites. And then you challenge yourself to a bit more. And it’s really important to remember that is really suited to everyday fears, not things like PTSD or anxiety disorder. What were the fears that you worked on?
ZOE FRANCESCA Okay, so some of the fears I’ve worked on have been, well, fear of death. Fear of heights, fear of public speaking. Fear of sex. Fear of cooking. I mean really there’s so many.
DACHER KELTNER You had a whole book of fears that you tackled with a single practice!
ZOE FRANCESCA The way that you do it is you take it step by step. So for example with my fear of heights, you know, I know that people love being up high, and I’ve never understood it. I know it has something to do with a good view, but who needs a view? No, I actually do appreciate it more now and I can do a lot more things that are high up than I could before.
So you know at first, you climb a flight of stairs that’s within a structure, like inside a tower. And then you know, I did this recently in Seattle. There was this park with a wonderful tower that had a viewing deck. So as I was climbing the stairs I knew I was going up and there were windows but I was safe inside the tower. Then when I got to the top, there was still a roof but the windows were much bigger, and I could get a lot closer to the edge. You know, so first you you know use these step back then you step take a step forward. See how that feels. Breathe. You know, and then after climbing that water tower you know I went with my client to this Chabot Space and Science Observatory. And stood on the deck, and held onto the railing, and looked down, and looked up, and looked at her.
And she’s relaxed and she’s enjoying it. Yeah. So that helps me regulate my nervous system. Yeah. And then you actually have to repeat this a few times. It’s not enough to do it once. You know going back to the same flight of stairs or the same observatory deck or the same sky tram. Yeah. You know you do it multiple times. If you can it really makes a difference. It becomes sort of ‘ho hum.’ And you want to get to that point where it’s no big deal and you know, you may be thinking about something else at that point while you’re doing it, then you’re gold. You know you’re golden.
DACHER KELTNER Did you notice your kind of feeling more comfortable and gaining a little confidence?
ZOE FRANCESCA Yes. And what a great feeling that was.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah I hear you.
DACHER KELTNER So were you ever bold enough you ever try to go back on that sky tram at the zoo? The one you had a panic attack on with your 90-year-old client?
ZOE FRANCECA Well, I have to tell you that they built a new sky tram that’s enclosed. About a year later, I turned to Mavis again and said, “Mavis, would you come with me on the new sky tram?” And she said yes. And the way we did it is I asked another couple who is behind us in line to get on the tram with us. And as we were in the tram I spoke to them and I said you know, I have a real fear of heights but I’m doing this because I’m missing out, I’m missing out on so much, and I am so glad that you’re in this tram car with me so that you know if I if I feel scared I’ll know that it’s okay and you can help me. And I did that a few times and then I finally was able to go with her alone. And there’s a part of me that still wants to go in the old sky tram again and see if I could do it.
DACHER KELTNER We know doing things that you fear with somebody else gives you a lot of social support and strength and that reduces the fear.
DACHER KELTNER Has it changed how you feel about yourself? Have you become more self confident. Have you more bold or courageous in certain ways?
ZOE FRANCECA I have. I have gained a lot of self-confidence I think because when I’m afraid of something I’m picturing something in my mind that’s not actually real. So being afraid of death for example. You know, I thought, “Oh it’s you know it’s gonna be so awful to see a person who’s dying or dead and they’re gonna look so scary.”
You know, I was really afraid, anytime I saw you know a dead animal I would scream and then I said to myself, “What if I had to see a dead body? What would that be like for me?” And I found out at my synagogue that there is something called the Burial Society. And what you do is you prepare bodies for burial. And I asked if I could join and they said, “Of course, we need people.”
And I said, “Well, can I can I just observe? Can I watch?” And they said, “No, if you’re going to come and do this, the first time you have to participate.”
And I have to say that I walked into that room just not knowing if I would faint or scream but as soon as I was there, this feeling of grace and holiness came into the room and was just there the whole time making it safe making it possible. And my fear was gone.
It is really important to take small steps - but you don’t have to take them over the course of one month or even one year. Like sometimes it will take years. And that’s okay as long as you keep working on it.
DACHER KELTNER It’s so striking and even paradoxical like you had this fear of dying and now you’re working with people who are dying.
ZOE FRANCESCA Yup.
DACHER KELTNER What has it done to you?
ZOE FRANCESCA The main thing that it did for me was to give me two things. One, a deep appreciation for everyday life that I just didn’t have before. And the other thing it’s really shown me that today is all we have. We really don’t know what’s happening tomorrow so let’s make today the most meaningful that we can. Whatever that means to us.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, that’s incredible.
ZOE FRANCESCA Happiness doesn’t mean—a lack of fear doesn’t mean that everything’s good everyday all day. No, there’s plenty of things that are hard and difficult and scary. But I guess I’ve learned to really embrace them. And really not shy away from them, and that has increased my happiness.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, I hear you. Often when we encounter and try to transcend our fears, it’s the first step that’s so hard you know and we avoid the things we fear. You know we can’t think about it. We don’t take sort of constructive action. So how do you advise people to take that first step?
ZOE FRANCESCA Take the first step. I think compassion is the key word. Yeah. To have that compassion. And to try to be so compassionate towards yourself that you just open up your heart and say, I am so scared. I am so vulnerable. And I’m not sure if I’m ready. But as soon as I feel ready, I’m going to allow myself to give it a try. And I’m going to be so loving and so kind to myself for even contemplating that. Yeah. And I think that’s the first step.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah I hear you. Well, Zoe Francesca, thanks for being on the show.
ZOE FRANCECA Thank you, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER Zoe’s stories shows that we’re not condemned to carry our fears with us forever. We can transcend the way we respond to fear by creating new experiences. New memories. Researchers used to think of memories like PDF files on our computers: click on it, read it, nothing about the file ever changes. But now, we know that every time we retrieve a memory, it’s more like opening a Word doc—you can put in new information, changing the content.
If that’s the case, maybe we could recondition people’s brains to react less fearfully to something they once found terrifying. David Johnson, who teaches behavioral science at York College in New York, did a study to find that out.
He had participants stare at a computer that’d flash blue squares randomly across the screen. But each time a square popped up, Johnson would give them an electric shock.
DAVID JOHNSON After a while, they start to fear the image that’s paired with shocks even before the shock appears, because they know that it means a shock might be coming. All right. These are electric shocks they’re mild they’re annoying they’re not painful, but they definitely they don’t feel great. And what we’re measuring is, we’re measuring changes in the sweat activity in their skin.
So that’s day one.
And then they come back 24 hours later. And this session they learn something new about the blue square: it doesn’t predict shock anymore. How about that, right? No more need to be fearful of this thing. So we present that square repeatedly, 20 times and hopefully, they don’t fall asleep. It’s pretty boring. But they come to learn that hey, the blue square is not to be afraid of anymore. Right. Yesterday I learned to fear. Today I don’t have to worry about it. And we’re doing this while the memory is fragile.
Then on the third day of the experiment we then come back and we basically test to see if they are going to respond fearfully to that square now. Day one they learned to fear it. Day two they learned not to.
What generally happens is they just did not show a return of fear.
If we’re repeatedly exposed to the thing that causes us to be frightened and there’s no bad outcome, then we can form a new memory and a new memory says, hey, this thing isn’t something you should be frightened of. Or at least it’s something that maybe you should be frightened of in this one context but not in another context right, right? So that’s what’s really cool is that it’s a distinct memory from the original fear memory because it might be the case, it may in fact be the case that we need to be afraid of something in one context and not in another. So it may be the case that we need both of these memories to exist in combination to kind of modify our emotional responses to things in the world in a kind of dynamic way.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the ‘overcoming a fear’ practice, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. But as we made sure to mention earlier in the show, the overcoming a fear practice is really meant for every day fears. Fears related to conditions like PTSD and social anxiety disorder should be addressed with the help of a mental health professional.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness. Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.