Today’s post is about FEAR.
This post is #3 in a series of 10: Ten Basic Emotions and their Messages.
The central point is: The human emotional system is built as a messaging system.
Each emotion has a general message it wants to convey. Once that message is delivered, the emotion or the wave of that emotion can be processed.
Sometimes there are multiple waves of the emotion. Sometimes it takes a little time for the emotion to process through the body, sometimes it is relieved right away.
Let’s start with the basic message fear wants to bring to your awareness.
The noble intention behind fear is to alert you to a possible threat.
It wants you to pay attention to this physical or emotional threat so you can assess the level of danger and have enough energy to address the threat.
This seems really basic, but think about it: If you did not have a fear of being hit by a car, you probably wouldn’t have developed the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
Or, how about when someone says “we need to talk”? All of the sudden, you are reviewing all the things the conversation might be about because you are afraid you might have done something wrong. Yes, fear helps you pay attention.
And, since it happens to be relatively unpleasant, there is a lot of motivation to “do something” about whatever is making you feel afraid.
So, fear helps you focus on the threat and provides the energy to address the potential threat. When I talk about a threat, I mean a threat on any level: physical, emotional, financial, psychological, ect.
That’s a pretty helpful service fear provides, right? It is… but there is also the Achilles heel of fear.
The thing about fear (or any emotion) is that it doesn’t necessarily follow common logic.
Logic, willpower and reason live in the prefrontal cortex (right behind your forehead). That is not the seat of emotions.
The prefrontal cortex can influence your emotions (which is why we want to make sure it stays online), but it is not where they are born. Emotions are governed by your limbic system (middle brain) and the reptilian brain (the amygdala, who is in charge of making sure you survive) can definitely join in the fun. Especially when there is intense emotion or there are perceived needs for safety and survival.
Fear also follows perception. Consider that perception is not always correct. You might think someone is verbally attacking you, leaving you or putting you in a compromised position you when none of that is happening at all.
So, if any part of your brain perceives a threat, fear will surface.
If the fear is intense, your prefrontal cortex will likely go offline. That means you are not thinking along logical lines.
If there is a real and true physical threat, then your reptilian brain will help you in dealing with the threat. That is a blessing. Stopping to reason through something could actually cost you your life if there is a threat like a car coming at you or you are being attacked by a wild animal.
It might be unhelpful in the sense that it can hijack your ability to reason or it can activate your nervous system to really unpleasant levels and it can lead you to be reactive. All of that could potentially happen about something that is not happening in reality.
This is why it is important to be able to catch fear sooner rather than later.
If you detect fear early, you will have a better chance of using your prefrontal cortex (a source of reason and willpower) and reasonably addressing any threat.
To catch fear in it’s early stages, you can look to the body.
In the body, fear is commonly felt in the abdomen. It is one of the most easily detectable emotions physically. Think about getting butterflies in your stomach before you give a presentation. That is a sensation relatable to most people. That means you don’t need a lot of practice to know whether or not you feel are feeling it.
If you notice fear, here is what you can do:
ONE: Check your thoughts.
If it helps you: write it down. What are the thoughts going through your mind right now?
When you get good at catching fear early in your body, you might not yet consciously know what the fear is about. This is an especially good time to take a couple minutes to write about what is going on, the source of fear will come to the surface. Don’t doubt yourself or question whether or not you “should” be feeling fear. Remember, emotions do not necessarily follow logic. Whatever comes up is probably at least part of the fear.
TWO: Ask yourself “is this actually true?” If “yes” or you are not sure, ask yourself “is this helpful”?
If your answer is “no” to either of those questions, pull your thoughts into perspective. That means, try to look at the situation objectively. If you are having trouble, consult with a trusted friend who has a “sober” mind (who isn’t feeling the same fear). Also consider whether this is a fear that developed at an earlier time that does not pertain to what is happening right now. The brain is motivated by fear to scan the environment for threats. It will respond to things that appear to be like threats in the past.
If it is not about current circumstances, reminding yourself that it is not current or present will help it relax.
If your thoughts are true and helpful, the fear will give you a road map for how to handle things: where to pay attention, what actions you need to take to increase your safety and security in a potentially challenging moment.
Let’s talk about an example:
A mother sees that her child is passive and wants to please. She wants her daughter to be able to stand up for herself and not be steam-rolled by peers, or later, romantic partners.
This mom fears that her daughter will have experiences similar to hers in her young adulthood. The fear is guiding her to make sure her daughter develops the confidence to advocate for herself. That is positive.
However, depending on the intensity of this mother’s experiences (maybe she was in an abusive relationship), the fear may be intense. She may find herself criticizing her daughter for being passive and, inadvertantly, chip away at her daughter’s confidence or make her daughter feel that “speaking up” is unpleasant since she experiences her mother’s “speaking up” to be unpleasant.
If this mother is aware of the fear surfacing when she learns of her daughter’s peer interactions, this can be really helpful. It may prompt her to do some research about how to build her daughter’s confidence and guide her daughter in ways she was not as a child.
If this mother is not aware of her fears, she may inadvertently lead her daughter down a path of being avoidant of conflict or not knowing how to assert herself.
It makes sense, right? How fear can be a guide and source of resilience?
Where might you be experiencing fear that could be offering you guidance?