Ok, so let’s talk about fear. Fear is one of the most misunderstood sentiments that we have. Fear has a bad reputation. People have historically thought of fear as a negative emotion and something we would be better off not having in our lives. I want to defend fear in this article and make a case for it. So let’s go.
The science of fear
Our brain has evolved over millions of years and there are different parts in the brain responsible for the fear mechanism. The amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, along with other parts of the brain are key to our fight-or-flight reactions.
Amygdala: scans for threats and signals body to respond
Brain Stem: triggers the freeze response
Hippocampus: turns on the fight-or-flight response
Hypothalamus: signals the adrenal glands to pump hormones
Pre-Frontal Cortex: interprets the event and compares it to past experiences
Thalamus: receives input from the senses and “decides” to send information to either the sensory cortex (conscious fear) or the amygdala (defence mechanism).
When we are in a state of fear, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible, nonessential systems such as the immune system and digestion turn themselves off to allow more energy to go towards emergency function, and veins in the skin constrict which keeps blood in the major muscle groups. A whole heap of things happen — very very quickly in our brains and our bodies. Fear is one of the oldest responses we have in our evolutionary process.
And to think that people put themselves through this on purpose, via horror movies, rollercoasters, haunted houses and so on. Why?
Dopamine, aka the feel-good hormone — that’s why. The same dopamine that keeps us coming back to our smartphone after posting something on Instagram or Facebook to see how many likes/comments we have. The same dopamine that turns social media or food into an addiction. The same dopamine that makes sex feel amazing.
In addition to cortisol and adrenaline, dopamine is also released during frightening situations. Some people, however, react strongly to the dopamine in the moment and get a natural rush or a high in a fearful situation — and become addicted to it. The fear becomes an adventure. A thrill.
Fear and evolution
According to the dictionary; “Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, real or imagined. Fear serves an important role in keeping us safe as it mobilises us to cope with potential danger.” I want to focus on the second half of that statement, how fear serves an important role.
Fear is a survival mechanism. Throughout history and the evolutionary process — fear has kept us alive and kept us evolving. It is an inherent part of our evolution and we are the product of the ancestors who were fearful not the ones who were courageous. Those that were brave and ventured forth, didn’t return. Those that cowered in the caves reproduced. We are the product of that fear, the cowardice of our ancestors. Our very existence is due to this fear. It is an inherent part of our biology that has kept us alive and kept us procreating. If we are not afraid, we wouldn’t survive for long.
A word about bravery, valour and courage
If you look for a synonym for bravery, fearlessness is one of them. People misunderstand that bravery and courage is not having any fear, a state of fearlessness — no, not having any fear is foolishness. It is perhaps a pathological illness. Bravery and courage mean having the fear, feeling the fear but taking action in spite of the fear. I, for instance, don’t want to be the fool that does not fear things and makes stupid rash decisions and dies. Instead, I want to be the brave person who, having known and felt the fear, still decided to act in the most sensible and calculated way. There is a huge difference in these approaches.
Fear in the modern world
Although we now live in a very different world, the process of millions of years of evolution can not be undone in a few generations. We don’t face the same threats our ancestors did but we attach the same fear response to most problems of today. Although being embarrassed and perhaps losing your job is not life-threatening but our system treats them like they are in fact life-threatening.
Fear’s job is to keep us alive — it has evolved to do that one thing. So our system often goes into fight or flight mode even when not required. We have taken our fears from the savannah of lions, tigers and other predators and transferred them to all kinds of situations of the modern world — where we obviously are not in any immediate danger of lions and tigers.
Consider some of these fears we face on a daily basis in the modern world:
- Fear of public speaking (one of the biggest, strongest fear people have in the modern world)
- Fear of consequence (of our actions/inactions)
- Fear of losing the alternative (when we make a choice — we let go of all the alternatives)
- Fear of missing out (#YOLO)
- Fear of embarrassment/humiliation (social status and recognition)
- Fear of failure and loss
- Fear of not measuring up/lagging behind
How many of these do you think are life-threatening? Perhaps one or two in the right circumstances could be life-threatening depending on your situation — but most of them, not so. However, our reaction to most of them is similar to those of our ancestor’s hundreds and thousands of years ago.
How fear continues to serve us
Anticipating a fearful stimulus can provoke the same response as actually experiencing the situation hence fear is one of the greatest motivators known to us. Most of the modern world is created, at least in part, due to some fear — including most accomplishments. Passion, love, and craftsmanship have their place in this equation but there is fear, in some shape or form, that is a driving force. Fear of losing, fear of being forgotten, fear of humiliation, fear of not being good enough — deep down somewhere, behind most motivations are some of these fears.
Imagine that we remove death from the equation of life. We have unlimited time, to achieve all our goals, realise all our dreams and do all the things we wanted to do. What are we most likely going to do? Not much, to be honest. It is the fear of death, the fear of mortality, of perishing away and being forgotten, the fear of wasting our time, fear of retribution, of letting someone down (dressed mostly as love) that motivates us to do most things. Without this fear, we would probably not do much in our lives.
Not all fear is created equal
Some fears are good, like the ones we talked about, healthy fears — that motivate us to do things but there are also unhealthy fears. Fear can be energising or draining. When people talk about stress, worry, panic — it is actually fear, just dressed differently. A healthy fear essentially makes your life better, motivates you to do things. An unhealthy fear would make your life worse or in some way restrict your freedoms and a simple fact is that everyone experiences fear differently. It is important to know what fears work for you and what doesn’t. Does fear motivate you to do more, or does it shut you down and freeze you? Learn to use your fears as motivators and not a hindrance.
In spite of what all the ‘gurus’ in the self-help world say, you cannot and should not, shut off of your fears. It is an inherent part of your biology and your evolution — it helps you survive. However, what you can do is tune your fear response as some fears do in fact paralyse us when not required.
In one of the upcoming articles, I will list some of these unhealthy fears and ways to tackle them. Until then, stay awesome.