Let’s begin at the beginning: The beginning of fear, as well as the beginning of arguments in defense of fear: Fear is an evolutionary necessity that has perpetuated our species’ survival in the face of environmental dangers. Back when our ancestors lived in small tribes, we feared aggression and power and pain in its purest, most externalized forms: wild animals, starvation, weather and the elements, the danger of childbirth, and the unknown “Other.” We stuck close to our tribe and trusted its collective wisdom fiercely because if we didn’t follow it, we would die, or worse – be cast out and forced to survive on our own. To ignore the warning signs of fear meant nonexistence. To feel fear meant to survive and thrive.
Over time, the most appropriately fearful – the ones who avoided the lion, took cover in a storm or avoided functioning outside of social norms – survived. The fear response was genetically useful and passed on as it grew with our limbic system, which is made up of several brain structures that house the processing of emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and decision-making. The processing of fear and anxiety is most closely associated with the amygdalae, two almond-shaped groups of neurons located in the brain’s temporal lobes.
When a human encounters a frightening stimulus, whether it’s universal (like loud noises) or conditioned (like airplanes), an automatic chain reaction is activated. The thalamus, sensory cortex, hippocampus, amygdalae, and hypothalamus all receive and send signals that activate the almost-instant fear response that leads to the fight-flight-freeze response we are so familiar with. The signals instruct the body to GET READY physically and mentally: increase heartrate and blood pressure, release adrenaline and cortisol hormones, tense muscles, dilate pupils, constrict veins (which induces the “chilling” feeling associated with fear), increase blood sugar, shut down digestive and immune systems to channel energy for emergency functions, and alter our cognition to focus on the big picture: Is this dangerous? Am I in danger? How can I protect myself?
Many humans now live in the safest and most prosperous time in history, when environmental, animal, and disease threats are at historic lows.  Despite the relative reduction of snakes, rogue lightning, and disease in our lives, our fear reflex remains very 1 active; it activates similarly whether we are facing a hungry alligator and anticipating a big argument. What used to protect life has become an increasing threat to living a life of courage and empowerment. Fear exists outside of our knowledge or awareness and, if we are to have any control over our fear, we must get to know it.
Learning Fear as a Child
Any person could easily rattle off their fears, but they would be less able to tell you how those fear stories have created limitations in their lives. They may be able to tell you how a specific fear started, but not the start of their internalized framework of fear. So when did this natural, protective fear become twisted? Let’s start at the beginning, again: Let’s dig up the roots of your fear.
You are 3 years old and you’re playing with a candle at a holiday party. You are experiencing the flame just as it is. It feels warm sometimes and hot other times – so hot you pull your hand away (a rational response to physical pain). You wonder what the pool of wax would feel like if you touched it, so you do. It’s soft and malleable and feels gooey on your fingertips. You smile because this is pretty cool! You have discovered something special about this candle, this substance. Suddenly, everything changes.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? You’re going to hurt yourself! Don’t you know better?! Get away from there!”
It’s your mother, and she’s not as smiley as she normally is. Something is wrong, and you think it has to do with what you were doing with the candle. She pulls you away and roughly tugs you to another room where there are no candles.
“Don’t EVER play with fire,” she says. She looks upset but you really don’t know why. You were just having fun with something new.
Depending on how often this happens, or the fearfulness of your parent, this becomes a story: Just when you find presence with something new and interesting and live without separation from that experience, a dark cloud of “STOP” jumps on you. You are pulled from the moment and told you should be afraid. The underlying message is: there is something to be afraid of, and that paying attention to yourself, to your own world of experience, is wrong, and that to be safe, you must turn your attention to other things outside yourself. Do not look at the thing and do not look at yourself. Fear the fear.
The birth of this framework in your life may have nothing to do with a candle or fire – perhaps it started at 6 years old when you got slapped for playing with a knife near your baby sister, or at 8 years old when you were without your family for the first time at summer camp. Perhaps you were taught the fear of fear explicitly in sex education class (“Sex is scary because there are so many unknowns that could lead to disease.”) or driving school (“Be afraid of highway merging, drunk driving, and check engine lights”). Whatever the origin, judgments about fear – that is bad, uncomfortable, and should be adhered to closely– have contributed to your decision-making process for a long time.
The Long-term Effects of Fear
We hear the message of fear over and over until we internalize a chorus of voices warning and threatening us that we cannot be trusted with ourselves, that a moment’s attention away from the dangers lurking outside will bring destruction and mayhem. All of these thoughts and sensations add to the discomfort of fear, and we will do anything we can to avoid them. Over time, this fear of fear shrinks our world. We stay put.
All of that yelling, slapping, and scolding may mean you know “better,” but do you know yourself any better? All you have learned from a caregiver’s intervention is that the “unknown” should be experienced as scary, and you should listen to the fear that wells up telling you to GET OUT. Tragically, our caregivers give us limited information about how to process experiences, and we need more to make a rational decision.
“What would be helpful is for someone to explain it all, all of the subtleties and nuances – not as if you are stupid or careless or headed for disaster – but simply by way of giving information to someone who doesn’t have it…What we need for that transition from the innocent mind and heart of the child to an adult who can function well in the world is someone who knows the ropes, who can tell us how things work, who can guide us lovingly from not knowing through becoming capable and confident with whatever arises.” – Cheri Huber, Zen teacher
In the absence of such guidance, we grow up with our scared inner child inside. It wants to be coached and mentored, yet we have few role models to demonstrate how to coach. Instead, we follow our caregivers’ lead and distract ourselves from the thing we fear, and fear itself. These distractions separate us from the disquieting feeling that something here is not right.
Intelligence Over Fear
Fear makes a good case for its indispensability (“You need me to survive!”), but it is intelligence that keeps you alive – the rationalizations you apply to choices after considering all that is important to you: needs, wants, others, environment, future, past, fears, and whatever else is valuable to you. If you wake up to news of a terrorist attack in another country, you know that terrorism is real and unpredictable and it scares you. You also know that there are 7.4 billion people on Earth, and a miniscule few are terrorists and you are most likely not going to encounter one today. You go about your day. In another scenario, you consider asking someone out on a date because you have romantic feelings for them. You fear the potential “no thank you” and consider giving up the whole idea. Then, you think about how you have been feeling distant from others recently, and this may be a strategy to meet your need for connection. This desire to ask outweighs the potential pain of rejection. You make the call.
We don’t have to take our feelings personally, including fear.
1. This is based on statistics regarding life spans, overall health, and crime rates from the United Nations Human Development Index, the Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. It isn’t part of the discourse on these pages to discuss the disparities that exist across different social classes and ethnic groups; disparities that begin at birth and follow a person through their life. But there are many people who do have statistic justification to fear starvation, lack of medical care, animals, crime, violence, oppressive governments, and systemic prejudice that facilitate fear.
2. Of course, not all engagement in these activities is motivated by fear. Sometimes we eat, shop, solve problems, or watch TV as strategies to meet needs from the heart, not out of fear.
3. In psychoanalysis, “splitting” is the inability or refusal to integrate positive and negative ideals (love/hate, good/bad, right/wrong) in one’s self and others. It is a common defense mechanism in which the individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground)