Exploring Your Fear Frontier: What it is and How it Works
Walking the path of mindfulness and self-inquiry is rarely comfortable, which means that you’ll eventually encounter some pretty nasty stuff. And when you do, it’s easy to recoil in fear and prepare to run or fight.
But what if you could learn to harness your fear and use it to learn more about yourself and how this emotion shapes your perspective upon the world? What if you could take the distress and transform it into self-actualization?
In this article, we’ll take a look at fear’s curves and get a better lay of its landscape, so you can learn to better control it in the process of seeking your revolution.
Fear 101: The Deets
How Do You Define Fear?
In modern English, the word ‘fear’ is a culmination of several cultures and periods:
fǣr (Old English) = ‘calamity’ or ‘danger’
fǣran(Germanic / Old English) = ‘frighten,’ also ‘revere’
gevaar(Dutch) = ‘danger’
Gefahr (German) = ‘danger’
Consequently, the Oxford Dictionary currently defines fear as both a noun and a verb. For example, feeling fear because of a lion is a noun, whereas being afraid of the lion’s teeth is a verb.
But let’s put all this academic shit aside and talk about how fear works inside your body.
What’s the Root Cause of Fear?
Just like sadness and anger, fear is an incredibly complex emotional response to external stimuli. In this instance, the response springs from worries about the unknown future, such as:
Will this lion eat me in the next few seconds?
Will I fall from this tree branch and break my neck?
Will I nail that job interview tomorrow and be able to support myself?
Will I be a good parent in nine months?
Additional examples of triggers include objects or situations (e.g., spiders, heights, deep water, etc.), loss of control, past experiences, trauma, or physical symptoms, such as feeling sick to your stomach.
In fact, when fear is at the center of our worldview, the number of imagined threatening scenarios we perceive is infinite.
The University of Minnesota’s Taking Charge initiative explains that fear isn’t some evil feeling. Instead, it’s a primal response to potential danger that triggers the release of several essential hormones, like adrenaline, that:
“Slow or shut down functions not needed for survival (such as our digestive system),
Sharpen functions that might help us survive (such as eyesight).
Increases our heart rate, and blood flows to muscles so we can run faster.”
Hormones also flow “to an area of the brain known as the amygdala,” which helps “us focus on the presenting danger and store it in our memory,” they conclude.
Together, “our body will respond with the traditional fight-or-flight response,” explains Bhrett McCabe, Clinical & Sports Psychologist at The University of Alabama Athletic Department. Literally, the process prepares you to stand your ground and fight, or turn and run the other direction.
This process can physically lead to symptoms like rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, sweating, chills, shortness of breath, and trembling.
What Happens Emotionally When You’re Afraid?
Whereas everyone’s body reacts similarly to danger (e.g., sweating, increased heart rate, boosted adrenaline levels, etc.), Lisa Fritscher, writing for Verywell Mind, says that emotional responses to fear are highly personalized.
“Because fear involves some of the same chemical reactions in our brains that positive emotions like happiness and excitement do,” she says, “feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as fun, like when you watch scary movies” or participate in extreme sports, as just a couple of examples.
At the other end of the spectrum, someone else might hate feeling afraid and the adrenaline it delivers and could consequently avoid scary movies, extreme sports, or different situations where fear is central to the experience.
Note: If a person grows sufficiently afraid of a specific object or scenario, their fear can transform into a phobia, often out of proportion to the object’s actual threat of danger.
Either way, when we’re in the throes of fear, it’s a very real experience that can lead to common psychological symptoms like feeling frustrated or otherwise upset, out of control, or that our death is imminent.
What are the Pros and Cons of Fear?
What Bad Things Happens When You’re Always Afraid?
Over millions of years, our body has evolved its fear response specifically to help protect us from real threats to our lives, including other humans and animals.
In modern times, though, we have meaningfully fewer mortal threats. However, our fight-or-flight response remains hard-wired, like we still have to hunt for our dinner with spears.
“The problem with fear is that most of it is perceived,” Bhrett says. “We don’t have the full picture, so our body sees a potential threat (the uncertainty of the future),” and it reacts accordingly.
In other words, your body reacts the same way to a lion 50 feet away, as it does when thinking about an important business presentation next week for which you haven’t started preparing. Your body can’t discern any difference.
So, while short bursts of fear (and the cascade of physical and emotional reactions that follow) are beneficial, living under the constant threat of your fight-or-flight response can cause real harm. The University of Minnesota outlines that some common impacts of chronic fear include:
A weakened immune system
Gastrointestinal issues (e.g., ulcers, IBS, etc.)
Impaired memory, brain functioning, and processing
Mental health concerns like depression, chronic fatigue, and PTSD
Does Fear Offer Any Potential Benefits?
Repeated exposure to fear and the body’s subsequent fight-or-flight response can come with real-world negatives.
With this said, outside of triggering our fight-or-flight response to help keep us safe, fear provides numerous benefits in the short term. These include heightened awareness, boosted focus and concentration, emphasizing the importance of planning for the future, allowing us to analyze the choices before us, breaking from routine, and recognizing useful resources.
In the moderate-to-long-term, fear can also help you establish boundaries, navigate risk, increase your wisdom, develop courage, increase your motivation and resilience, and make you stronger.
Are There Effective Treatments for Fear?
Writing for Huffington Post, Ed and Deb Shapiro explain that “mindfulness invites us to be present with fear rather than run from it.” It also “frees us from being stuck in fearful thoughts and feelings.”
Together, “mindfulness allows fear to be, just as it is, without diving in,” they advise. “It turns fear into an ally we can use to become courageous and fearless.”
With this said, there are several methods you can use to reduce your fear response, which usually forms the basis of phobia-related therapy, most of which are based on forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Also known as exposure therapy, you’re gradually exposed to different situations that trigger fear. For example, if you’re afraid of heights, your therapist might talk about being up high, followed by looking at pictures at elevation, and eventually exposing you to real-world heights.
Consequently, throughout multiple sessions, you’ll learn and apply new techniques that can help you manage your fear response.
Flooding is a technique based on the premise that your fear is learned and that you can consequently un-learn it.
Compared to the gradual exposure when using exposure therapy, flooding exposes you to a lot of fear for a prolonged amount of time (in a safe, controlled environment, and with the help of a trained mental health professional, of course). The goal is to help you confront your fear head-on, realize that you’re still OK, and thereby allow you to overcome your fear and anxiety.
Coping Using Mindfulness and Meditation
Coping involves forming a foundation of support from myriad sources to help you move past fear and anxiety.
Options include social support from friends, family, and even online resources, taking care of your health (eating well, getting plenty of exercise and sleep), and stress management techniques like deep breathing and visualization.
Along these same lines, professionals frequently recommend implementing mindfulness and meditation techniques to handle fear since they help bring you back to the ‘center,’ calm you down, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
While all of these are great options for dealing with fear, is it possible to overcome it altogether?
How Can You Overcome Fear?
Bhrett emphasizes, “the uncertainty we face always has some fear associated with it. But this uncertainty is nothing more than a tool for helping us get ready to face fear.”
“We have to realize that we’re capable of facing anything,” he concludes, and fear helps us do exactly that.
Therefore, you can’t overcome fear. But with practice and patience, you can progressively learn how to remain courageous in the face of fear, even if things don’t always go as planned.
“You don’t have to have a perfect response in order to succeed,” Bhrett says. “We just have to continue to work through it.”
You Have Nothing to Fear But …
Fear isn’t as simple as an on/off reaction. It’s not either yawn-worthy or insanely powerful.
Instead, it’s a spectrum based on our individual motivations, brain function, phobias, adaptability, and resistance to pain, as just a handful of examples.
The good news is that wherever your fear falls on the spectrum at any given moment, you can use mindfulness and the other tools discussed above to help you regain control, see it through a lens of clarity, and make a non-emotional reaction.
Furthermore, learning to control your fear can help you lead a happier, healthier life, avoiding conditions like depression, increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease, improved brain function, and so much more.
But it takes real effort! So why not make the conscious decision to compassionately learn from your fear today?