I am one of those people who always needs to know the ‘why’. It’s actually one of the first things I ask my promotional writing clients. It’s my way to understand what drives them and why they are passionate about their businesses.
It’s also what I always ask of myself in my journal writing, ‘Why do you I feel this way?’ If I can understand the root of where it all came from, it’s just so much easier for me to let the problem go.
Please tell me I’m not the only one who feels this way!
I don’t very often go to see psychics, but my booth happened to be beside one at a holistic fair last fall, so I took a reading. He told me that when I have a fear, I wear down all the rough edges, so that when I am ready to let it go, it's gone for good. That makes sense to me.
Of course, we may never be certain of the root for of the fear, but when we can at least feel we have a grip on the ‘why’ of it, that’s when faith takes the wheel.
THE BIOLOGY OF FEAR
Imagine for a moment you are walking along a path on your favorite park trail shortly before dusk. There are trees all around and although there is still plenty of light, things are not quite as clear to see as they are in the daytime. You start to see things in the shapes of the bushes ahead, and your peripheral vision imagines movements to the sides of you. A short distance away, you hear the snap of a twig breaking under someone or something’s foot. Someone who is not you…
You begin to feel on edge. You want to run.
You do this because you’re afraid. Even without direct evidence of danger, you’re ready to run in order to protect yourself. But why?
Because the amygdala, a teeny-tiny nut, keeps you safe
Fear is triggered by your amygdala, a tiny almond–shaped thingy in your brain. That snap of the twig alerts your amygdala, which in turn dominoes a whole series of micro-calculations, filling your body with messages that widen your eyes, prick your ears, raises your heart rate, quicken your breathing, wrench your stomach, moisten your palms, make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You feel that familiar, full–on chill of the freeze, flight, or fight response. You want to run because fear has you in its grip.
Nouchine Hadjikhani, a Harvard associate professor of radiology who specializes in capturing the activity of the brain as it reacts to fear–provoking stimulation. She was interviewed in a Harvard Medical School blog by Anne Marie Menting, “You could call the amygdala a relevance detector. In less than 100 milliseconds, just one–tenth of a second, sensory information reaches the amygdala, which signals your brain to be aware. All your systems become more receptive. You’re now ready to fight, freeze, or flee.”
Now, while your amygdala is keeping you alive by creating awareness, sensory clues are also traveling to your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control and control and organization of emotional reactions. The amygdala’s rapid-fire processes buy you additional milliseconds in which you might receive other clues from your senses that your prefrontal cortex will use to minimize the initial response. You calm down, completing a cycle of reaction that has been key to human survival since we first crawled out of the swamp.
ARE WE BORN WITH FEAR, IS IT LEARNED — OR BOTH?
It is wired into our human DNA to be specialists at reading faces and noticing signs and changes in posture, muscle tensing, etc., for signs of fear. Within minutes of birth, babies begin to orient to faces rather than objects. So it’s no wonder then that we learned our fear of swimming from our mother who won’t go in water deeper than her waist. These physical communications of danger — whether real or not — can develop into a conditioned fear. A conditioned fear is a learned response based on emotion that is so firmly planted in our memory it remains active for a lifetime.
Fear can be an extremely valuable tool. “Don’t touch that, it’s hot!” “Don’t go that way, it’s dangerous at night.” “Don’t even think about going to that man’s apartment.” “Wake up, do you feel that? There’s someone in the room!”
Fear is all DON’T and STOP and it does an excellent job of preventing us from getting physically hurt in a dangerous situation. That’s what the fight, flight, or freeze instinct is all about. We learn to be afraid of the hot iron, not to run with scissors, to be afraid of the monster under our bed.
Being the little sponges we are, we learn through experience. We get a bee sting from picking up piles of raked grass with our bare hands, we instantly develop a healthy fear and respect for bees, and we start wearing gardening gloves to do the job.
FEAR AND SHAME OFTEN GO HAND IN HAND
Somewhere along the way, our fear, something we trust to keep us safe, teaches us to avoid certain situations that we may actually need to master in order to grow emotionally and live happy and healthy lives.
For example, we may be doing a presentation at school, blank out for a moment, and feel that prickly, cold, sweaty fear from our amygdala. We hear a classmate’s derisive laughter and we feel shame and embarrassment. In that one moment, we develop a fear of public speaking and we may avoid it our entire life.
Or, we may be told by a teacher, a competitive sibling, or other in a position of trust that we can’t sing, or write, or dance, or draw.
Before we even realize what’s happening, Fear becomes this bossy inner critic that becomes a master of picking up on our fear and shame responses and uses it to create an irrational fear of something that we may once have loved to do. What?!
ARE YOU ONE OF THE WALKING DEAD?
We may get so wrapped up in the shame/fear spiral that we may stop ever trying anything new. Fear is always there to remind us, “You can’t sing, so shut up.” “Why even bother applying for that job. You’ll never get an interview, you don’t have every qualification they’re looking for.” “Don’t believe this crazy man you like who thinks you’re beautiful. He’s going to hurt you, just like all the others.”
Fear changes from the once helpful inner voice that saved us from falling down stairs as toddlers to that nasty and loud inner critic that keeps us from truly living.
Now I get why our society has a fascination with zombies. We might just as well be one, for all the living that we do — never trying anything for fear of failure. Always wanting, wanting, wanting, but too afraid to put ourselves out there and step out of our personal boxes.
Take a moment to think about this… Is there something that you’ve wanted so badly for so long (possibly your whole life) but you're told no, or who do you think you are for wanting that? Or that you don’t deserve it?
So you never actually try it.
“FEAR IS A NATURAL REACTION TO MOVING CLOSER TO THE TRUTH”
Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron wrote this in the opening pages of her beautiful book, When Things Fall Apart. Fear comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. But her Shambala teachings also say that if you don’t know what fear is, you can never be fearless. She says, “If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are [in the fear] then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.”
I’m not saying that we fight Fear, but to embrace her or him (think of her like a child), be tender, but also firmly let her know that she is NOT in charge. This complete undoing of how we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think is the way out of Fear's control.
Fear will always be our companion. Maybe what it really needs is to feel heard, acknowledged, then told, “It’s okay, Fear. Thank you for your concern for all these years, but I’ve got this. I need to do this. I’m climbing out of this box that is too tight for me, starting now. You climb into the backseat and rest... because I’m taking over the wheel.”
kathy mercure is a writer, storyhealer and a storylistener. Her life’s work is to gently draw stories from her students and help them unblock their writing, find their voice, and heal their lives. Her passion is to support women and men in realizing their true identity as a valued human being, claiming their passions, and speaking their truth as they become their most authentic selves. (Photo by EagleSpirit Soul Shots)