The Anatomy of Fear

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Fear. It is this four letter word that has so much power over our lives we seem to have accepted it as part of the human condition. Fear takes us away from what we really desire, it makes us feel unworthy, it creates a sense of powerlessness but most of all it robs us of who we are meant to be.

But what if I were to tell you that fear is all an illusion? A fabricated lie by our subconscious to keep us safe. And what if I also told you that instead of fearing fear embracing it as our friend may be one of the most powerful ways to subdue this Goliath that lives within us all?

But before we get to why fear is a necessary illusion, let’s understand how fear works. Infant studies have shown that other than the fear of heights that we develop at 6 months of age and the fear of separation we are not born with most fears we experience but learn them through a process called fear conditioning.

Conditioning is why some people fear dogs while others think of them as family. When a traumatic event occurs in our lives the amygdala stores this event and triggers a fear response next time we are in a situation resembling the trauma. A famous study conducted by John Watson in the 20’s taught an infant to fear white rats by pairing the appearance of a rat with negative stimulus such as loud noises. The infant very quickly learned to fear the rat and even other furry animals. These fear responses have been recorded decades later when the subjects faced related circumstances where the amygdala still associated the events with real danger.

In another interesting study, lab monkeys that had never been exposed to snakes did not show any fear to them when brought into contact initially. However, after seeing footage of the fear responses of their wild cousins that were exposed to snakes, the lab monkeys showed a heighten sense of fear to the same snakes in a subsequent experiment.

This phenomenon, called the fear transference, suggests that for a fear response to develop a first-hand experience is not necessary it can become our own merely just by seeing others go through it. These studies suggest that most of our fears are not real but learned and/or transferred from experiences we have had in the past which our primal reptilian brain the amygdala quickly internalized as real fears.

What’s more surprising is that our perception of danger or stress creates a far greater fear response than the actual danger or threat that is posed. In one study done by K. Litzelman people that perceived their lives to be very stressful had a 43% higher chance of dying than the ones that did not. Even more astounding is that people that believed that stress did not affect their lives had a 17% lower chance of mortality than the people that were neutral.

Thinking of something as dangerous makes you much more likely to experience the fear responses associated with it, and more importantly thinking the opposite will diminish the grip that fear can have on you when engaging in an activity of relative danger or out of your comfort zone.

Now that we have laid out how fear works let’s look at the types of fear. In my opinion, fear can be categorized and thus I have broken down fears into 3 major categories: Evolutionary Fear, Societal Fear and Identity Fear. This is my personal interpretation of fear and is meant only for informational purposes.

  1. Evolutionary Fear

The evolutionary fears are hard wired into us that allow us to avoid pain and danger. The fear of pain and danger keep us alive when faced with threatening situations. Our ancestors in the grasslands of Africa feared the danger a sabre tooth tigers posed as this fear motivated them to seek safety. The fear of danger and pain are real fears that kept our ancestors alive in the unpredictable world they lived in. Today they are just as relevant, allowing us to navigate the dangers we can face in modern society.

  1. Societal Fear

Next are the societal fears, these are fears I believe we learn at an early age through something called environmental conditioning. societal fears include fear of failure, embarrassment and rejection. As children we experience events that create these fears within us, a humiliating experience can create the fear of embarrassment and rejection whereas a perceived sense of overachievement can create a fear of failure.

They don’t even have to be our own experiences but could be someone else’s and as mentioned above the primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, may store these traumatic events as our own and create our deeply entrenched fear responses.

These fears occur as a result of circumstances outside of us that we have no control over yet our brains learn to create a meaning around these events and develop fears that make us react in a similar way just as we did whrn the event initially occurred.

  1. Identity Fear

Identity fears are of loneliness, loss of control and uncertainty. These fears can be gripping as they lie at the heart of who we are. These fears can cripple us into inaction as we perceive our actions to have the direst consequences.

Almost everything we do is to create a sense of certainty and belonging so that we can experience love both on a communal level and personal more intimate level. A threat to these basic of human needs can instill the greatest fears in our mind.

However, most of these fears are not real, they are perceived; imagined and overblown by our subconscious mind. In order to keep us safe from the danger our subconscious mind believes we can get into it manufactures fear response that most of us experience as our comfort zone. In the next blog of this three-part series I will discuss what are these fears that hold us back and why. In the meantime, I want to leave you with some food for thought.

Fear thrives in dark lonely places that is your comfort zone, fear cannot survive within the bright pulse of adventure and the pursuit of your dreams, because that is where courage lives and magic happens.

If you think you have any or all of these fears, comment below and let us know where do you fit in. Choose the fears that you relate with the most and rate them from 1 to 10.

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