Fear is a topic that has come up a lot for me recently and I’ve been intrigued to see how it relates back to so many facets our of lives. Whether I’m reading a book like Mind Over Medicine, an Instragram post by a major influencer about tools for living your best life or chatting with a loved one about the future, fear, in some form, seems to come up. And so, this post was born. Because understanding fear gives us the tools we need to deal with it.
Fear is a natural response to an event or experience that frightens us. While it often feels like it starts in the gut, the reaction itself is initiated in the brain.
Why do we feel fear?
The amygdala acts as an emotional response center located in the temporal lobes of the brain. When the amygdala is triggered by an emotion, like fear, a cascade of downstream events occurs that ultimately activates the fight or flight response.
Fight or Flight
In many cases, a fearful response is protective. If you hear footsteps coming down the hall when you’re the only one at home, activation of the fight or flight response is likely appropriate. In the same instant you notice the sound, you may also notice your pulse quicken and a layer of perspiration coat your skin.
Without your awareness, your blood pressure has increased preparing you to fight or run, your pupils have dilated allowing for improved vision and glucose is coursed through your veins, giving you a little energy boost. This response is normal and appropriate.
Fortunately, not all fear is threatening even if our body responds like it is. This is where you need to learn the difference.
Fear can be real or imagined.
I recall a time when I was little, and my parents would go out for dinner. The babysitter would arrive, and we’d play games for hours. Eventually, way past my bedtime, I would lay awake in bed, ever fearful that my parents might not return. I still vividly recall the feeling of relief that washed over me when I’d hear the front door open and their voices humming through the floor below.
On other nights, I’d lie awake for hours, my family safely tucked in bed, but deathly afraid of intruders in our home that would pose of real threat to myself and my family. Sadly, some of this fear came from growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, where these stories weren’t completely unheard of.
Yet my fear was imagined. There was no actual threat in sight, only my concern that there might be. I would not rest, and I would be on high alert, my stress response revved up for something that would inevitably never happen.
What are you afraid of?
Fear can come in so many forms and is often shrouded in a veil that keeps you from recognizing its presence. While some fears are obvious, like someone entering your home uninvited, most fears are more subtle – like being afraid a date might not go well or being afraid of failing an exam. So many of these fears are constantly present in our lives but sit at the back of our consciousness without recognition.
I have experienced many forms of fear (fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of failure) in my life and with time, have learned to manage many of them. It’s a constant process of re-evaluating and recognizing when fear is taking hold and allowing ourselves to acknowledge and let go. In many cases, the fear of something is worse than if the event were to occur.
Obviously, that’s not always the case. Being the subject of a violent act is extreme. But in most cases, we live in fear of something that never occurs. Or if it does occur, the outcome is much less terrible than the way we imagined it to be.
Why does fear hold us back?
As I mentioned above, the role of fear is meant to be protective. Healthy fear helps us discern safe situations from dangerous ones. When you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, your brain will immediately respond by suggesting you step back.
You might go into “freeze” mode, part of the fight or flight response, where you just don’t move at all. The processing center in your brain is telling you that you’d be safer to stay put than to jump off the edge.
Just like pain though, fear isn’t always protective. A fear of failure may hold us back from trying something new. The mind is preventing you from seeing the other possibilities. The possibility of success, the possibility of a newfound joy, the possibility of doing something new that you love. Jumping off the edge may be exhilarating and for the most part, perfectly safe.
But why does your brain keep focusing on the fear?
Our brain, and ego, will continue to do its best to protect us from real and perceived threats, even when these threats may be existential in nature. For instance, the fear of losing a loved one or not achieving our dreams. When we allow these future threats to impact us today, the cycle becomes maladaptive because we are unable to live in the present due to anxiety and fear of future events.
Fear generalization and fear memory
Fear generalization is the adaptive neurobiological process of contextualizing past experiences and then measuring the threat level of a current experience to those in the past. Fear memory is the process by which we encode prior threatening experiences in the hippocampal region of the brain in order to draw on these experiences in the future.
The relationship between fear and pain
In my work as a pain management physician, I’ve noticed that fear plays a significant role in the pain experience. As my practice has evolved, the role of pain avoidance and fear has become more central to my daily discussions with patients. Immediately after an injury, a pain signal is sent through the spinal cord to regions of the brain that halt us from continuing a certain movement. At this moment, the signal is protective.
For a period of time afterwards, this signal may continue. At some point, this signal is no longer helpful. The injury has resolved, but because of changes that occur in the brain (called central sensitization) we may become fearful of that movement or any similar movement that may cause pain.
In controlled studies about pain, when an individual was primed to think something would be painful, it was. Interestingly, when the same individual was told that a same stimulus would not be painful they reported less pain, despite the fact that they were exposed to the same stimulus. This is known as confirmation bias and we are very susceptible to it!
Why we need to address fear states
Fear is a complex emotion that activates the stress response. Without regulation, the stress response will remain activated. The stress response is meant to turn on and off quickly allowing for short bursts of adrenaline (and noradrenaline). Once it turns off, the parasympathetic nervous system should take back over, putting you back in rest and digest mode.
If the autonomic nervous system is constantly shifted towards the sympathetic nervous system being activated there is no time for recovery and adaptation. Hormonal regulation will be out of balance, and it will take a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Physical effects of fear if we don't address it:
- Immune dysfunction making you susceptible to illness and infection
- Endocrine dysfunction leading to hormone imbalances and/or diabetes
- Sleep issues like difficult falling asleep, staying asleep or severe forms like insomnia
- Chronic pain like fibromyalgia, muscle aches and generalized body aches
- Headaches like tension headaches, occipital neuralgia, and migraines
- Respiratory disorders like asthma
What fear tells us about ourselves
Introspection and reflection allow us to identify what holds us back and the role that fear plays in doing so. Much of the fear is in the narrative we tell ourselves, the “imaginary” fear that we work ourselves up about. Taking the time to deconstruct a fearful response will allow understanding of the motivation for the emotion and is the first step in eliminating the response.
Steps to managing fear
- Start a meditation practice
- Take time out of your day to practice breathwork
- Start journaling
- Engage in yoga
- Talk it over with someone you trust
- Find a therapist
Developing a healthy response to fear will be a huge step in building resilience. Each time you step out of your comfort zone you will reinforce the behaviors needed to do it again. A stronger sense of resilience will help you flourish and find strength to overcome any difficult situation in the future.
More resilience means more growth which means a higher chance of fulfillment and satisfaction in this lifetime. Don’t let fear keep you small.
How does fear show up in your life?
I hope this post has given you some insight into how fear can show up in your life. If you don’t already have a healthy relationship with fear, but if you don’t then now is a good time to make some changes.