When you feel the initial physiology of fear, how do you frame it? Here are some common responses.
This automatic fear response commands you to connect the dots:
Fear is a Traffic Signal You Can Ignore If You Want
Consider a traffic signal on the street: You get to a corner and you’re facing a red light and a hand that you’re told means “don’t walk.” You see the signal and look around. There are many cars moving quickly in front of you. You stand still because moving forward could mean a bodily harm or death, and you don’t want that.
Note: The signal did not physically block you from moving; it was your intelligent decision-making process that signaled to your brain to still your muscles. The traffic light offered information – but it was not the only information you gathered to make a decision. The signal cannot make you obey. We give it power by believing in its value.
Despite our faith in it, there is no way to guarantee safety based on the signal’s message. A rogue car coming the other way could completely ignore its signal altogether and hit you. The signal could be malfunctioning, switch erratically between red/green, or be hypersensitive to a leaf that drifts across its field. The signal could be for someone else (a bus driver or a bicyclist, for example). It is not directed towards you personally; it runs on its own system.
Sometimes you get to a corner and there are no cars near you. You look both ways, estimate your walking speed relative to any approaching cars in the distance, and walk forward. You acknowledged the signal, considered your other options (waiting for the light, running, going to the next corner), and moved forward – even though you saw a red hand signal. You felt comfortable in your overall safety because the signal’s information was not the only data you listened to. Red doesn’t always mean “STOP.”
Whether in the car or on the sidewalk, you gather as much information from the environment as you can so your decision is well-informed and safe. Ultimately, you make the decision, not the signal.
The comparison between a traffic signal and fear is obvious. Like the signal, fear provides information. It is the “Hey!” that alerts the mind that the body has sensed something of importance: a thunderclap, a new job, a difficult conversation with a loved one, an expected-but-not-found last stair, a sudden illness, a political protest, starting a marathon, potential isolation, etc. Like a busy intersection, any of these changes could be considered a threat to be feared and/or avoided – or an opportunity for movement and growth. We cross intersections daily in cars and buses, on bikes and feet – even though it is statistically dangerous to be around so many vehicles with error-prone humans making quick decisions. We brave intersections because it’s worth it.
If we avoided crossing intersections, our world would shrink to one block. Sure, you could do just fine if your block featured everything to meet your needs, but how likely is that? If we stand still at the corner, unable to make a decision for fear of making the wrong one, the fear has the same effect: stagnation and immobility. If we only accept the information offered to us by fear-signals and disengage from our intelligence, fear begins to dictate the borders of our world.
Snippets About Fear
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist nicknamed the “King of Fear,” has been working with the neurological basis of fear in animals and humans for over 30 years and has shown that the link between a memory and the associated fear response is both more complicated and simpler than previously thought. In a 2007 study, rats were conditioned to fear a shock associated with two sounds: a beep and a cricket chirp. Later, while only the cricket tone played, the rats were injected with U0126, a chemical that prevents the formation of long-term memories, which are critical in fear-story creation. Twenty-four hours later, when the rats heard both tones again, they froze only after listening to the beep, not the chirp. The chemical had gotten rid of the cricket-shock memory, and the fear with it. In human studies, subjects went through the same re-remembering process regarding their fear of heights. In lieu of unethical brain injections, they were given d-cycloserine, an antibiotic that has similar effects to U0126 but produces memories rather than eliminates them. When paired with virtual-reality images of a benign glass elevator, subjects were four times more likely to conquer their fear than those who took a placebo. The antibiotic had changed the amygdala to believe the VR elevator memory instead of older memories of scary heights. This changeable plasticity of memories has implications for people with PTSD, severe phobias, panic disorders, and OCD. Read more here.
The Fearless Monk
In a research study done by top fear researchers, the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard demonstrated the lasting effects of meditation practice on controlling one’s natural fear response. While meditating, Ricard was subjected to a sound as loud as a gunshot. He experienced a normal level of response when the stimulus was unanticipated. When the sound was expected, he exhibited a significantly decreased fear response as compared to control data. Full study here.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda
Fear & Other Emotions
In many cases, fear is the primary emotion under louder secondary emotions. A person experiencing jealousy at the suspected infidelity of a lover may have a deeper fear of abandonment lurking beneath. Anger may be a more outward expression of the fear of ego death/humiliation: when I am wary of touching the fear within me, I channel that anxiety on to someone else so they can know what I feel too. Hatred and bigotry of the Other frequently comes from fear of loss of power (ego-death/annihilation) from an unknown entity. Even joy can be experienced as a relief that the thing you feared did not come to pass. Some fears have no association with fear at all. Sometimes, sadness is sadness and excitement is excitement. But, if you are holding an emotion whose origin is confusing or unknown, step into it. What are the building blocks under it? How could you use the dominant emotion as information to your inner process? Where can you learn more?
Fear & the Long-Distance Hiker
A long-distance hiker carefully monitors everything in their backpack for weight and usefulness. With few distractions on the trail and less distance between mind and body, fear manifests in physical form. “You carry your fear,” says a long-distance hiker’s adage. What do your physical items tell you about your fears? Do you carry around an object for fear of what would happen without it? What would happen if you didn’t have it?