How and why fear shows up in our lives

Let me be clear from the outset, fear is our constant companion. You will never live your life in the absence of fear and there is no such thing as being ‘fearless’. Truly understanding this is the first and greatest step to changing your relationship with fear in a powerful and meaningful way.

We are wired to survive not thrive

Deep in the core of our brain, we have a small almond-shaped structure called the amygdala. This is the part which really hasn’t evolved much from our caveman ancestry thousands of years ago. It is on constant ‘red alert’, scanning for danger like a Meerkat on sentry duty to ensure our survival.  It is powerful, irrational and highly emotional and once triggered it sends rapid messages to our body to release adrenalin and cortisol to take us out of our normal ‘para-sympathetic’ operating state to a ‘sympathetic’ state. It is this ‘sympathetic’ state which manifests in three ways: Fight, Flight or Freeze. Even if you haven’t thought about fear in these terms, we all recognise the symptoms of such fear: elevated heart rate, tight chest, altered breathing, increased sweating and so on.

There is a spectrum of thoughts, feelings and actions for each of these states which range from the extreme to the mild. In simple terms, the extreme end is about doing anything to ensure we do not die, whereas at the milder end of the spectrum, the predominant emotions and actions will be something like this:

  • Fight - Here we are in action mode with corresponding feelings of anger, resentment, resistance, struggle, frustration and a desire to win (our competitive nature emerges).
  • Flight and Freeze – Here we are either running away from something or reverting to inaction. Typically, we might feel disappointment, guilt, sadness, worry, self-pity. In terms of action, this might be playing things safe or avoiding speaking our truth.  

How and why we experience fear

The fight, flight and freeze states are all automatic responses to stressful triggers; we will ALL experience this fear-based response on some level.

However, what one person finds stressful, another may find enjoyable or just be ‘ok’ with. Our relationship with fear is subjective and therefore unique to each and every one of us. But how we experience fear on an emotional level is common to all of us. Some people will be highly triggered by even the smallest event and this can create a feeling that our life really is in danger, culminating in panic attacks or fainting (dorsal vagal response). Others may just experience mild symptoms and feel a little anxious, irritable or depressed with corresponding shifts in their physiology.

What we find stressful - and the level of stress we feel - will largely depend on our life experiences, particularly those in our formative years, how we interpreted them and what meaning we gave them. When something happens to us and we interpret it in a negative and painful manner, we create stories to help protect us and prevent these bad events from happening again.

These stories are otherwise known as our belief systems and they effectively create the lens through which we see ourselves and the world. The problem is that these beliefs tend to be fear-based, therefore limiting our potential. Overtime they also become hardwired into our brains. Each day, we scan our lives seeking out patterns which match our beliefs, and which in turn trigger an almost automatic fear-based response. The longer this carries on, the more efficient and effective this programme of beliefs becomes. By the time we reach our late teens, our internal software can take us from a single thought to a fear-based reaction in a matter of seconds. What’s more, the constant and invasive sensory overload from our ever-advancing world - consider the amount of advertising and media we are exposed to each day - only increases the likelihood of our nervous-systems becoming overwhelmed. The odds are stacked in favour of a fear-based response.

Perceived fear v real fear

Fear is a natural response to stressful stimuli. It is there to protect us and to help us survive. It is not therefore a bad thing as such. Fear serves a useful purpose and is one of the key reasons why humans are still around today.  

I want to make one important distinction though. There is the genuine fear of being in mortal danger or in harm’s way (real fear), which fully warrants and indeed necessitates the fight, flight and freeze response. And then there are all the other fears (perceived fears) which are usually the scary stories we believe to be true, often about what can go wrong in the future or what went wrong in the past and is therefore supposedly going to happen again. Have you noticed how fear usually dwells in the shadows where you can’t quite see it for what it is? Have you seen how fear thrives in the ruminative past and the hypothetical future?

We consistently buy into these perceived fears as true (stories we believe), and yet they are the ones that are actually holding us back from fulfilling our full potential. These are the fears that we should be walking towards, facing up to and shining a bright light on. When we do this, we usually find that they were really not that bad after all and we free ourselves to do all those things we had previously put off and shied away from .

How long we spend feeling and acting from fear is a choice

To be clear, when we are triggered, our initial reaction is ALWAYS fear-based and severity of our reaction will largely depend on our belief-systems and past experiences.

However, the time we choose to spend in this fear-based state is a choice. Before you can even see an alternative choice, you must first become aware that your reaction is based on a fictional story you’ve been telling yourself. Once you gain this awareness, you will be able to change your state, should you wish to do so (it may be that you don’t!). It takes time to overcome these triggers and responses, but with the right approach it can be done in a relatively short space of time.

If you’re someone at the extreme end of the spectrum - and I was one of these people! - you might be thinking: ‘you have to be joking, when I’m feeling that level of fear, there is no way I can make a conscious choice to shift it; it just takes complete control of me.’ Having been there myself, I understand how debilitating this loss of control can feel, such is the power of our minds. But I promise you that there is a way out and there is always a choice…change doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes consistent work to get out of this hard-wired state, but it can be done.

If you would like to learn more about this and understand how to change your stories and belief-systems, please come and join me in my Online Academy which starts in January 2021.

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