What is fear?
Fear is an emotion that is born out of a perceived threat. The intensity can vary and cause a fight or flight response, which is the body's way of preparing to fight or run in the other direction.
This may have been helpful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors for survival, but not so much for present-day folks.
Most people are not being chased by animals in the wild or warring with neighboring tribes these days. Therefore, fear can be largely maladaptive in contemporary times because the threats that we encounter these days don't really place us in imminent danger.
A lot of it exists in our heads and the fears manifest as stress, anxiety, overwhelm, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, fear can be so extreme that it turns into a phobia, which is an excessive, persistent, and even irrational fear, such as a fear of spiders, clowns, or driving.
Many of us are scared of something and are able to get over it. However, some fears are very hard to shake loose, so I will go over how to overcome your fear, as well as how it works, how it affects you physically & mentally, and the different types of fear.
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How fear affects you.
On Sunday, March 15, 2020, President Trump asked Pastor Jentezen Franklin at Free Chapel in Gainesville, Georgia to lead the country in a National Day of Prayer.
This was in response to the growing unease and tension across the nation due to the quickly spreading COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus. Phrases like, “death toll rises” and “state of emergency”, played over news outlets and perpetuated the fear.
Pastor Jentezen said over and over to “choose faith over fear”, which was uplifting and inspirational, but based on my own personal experience, easier said than done.
The effect of fear on the body.
Studies have shown that negative emotions, such as fear, can decrease our reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. In other words, we can make irrational decisions and behave accordingly when we feel scared.
Other ways fear can manifest are stress and anxiety, which are less obvious forms of fear, but our physiology responds in the same way. These types of low-lying fears are more common in the modern age and can be more dangerous, according to research, if it's persistent.
This is because, when we feel fear, our endocrine system releases hormones that signal parts of the body to fight, like the muscles, nerves, and heart. At the same time, the organ systems that are not necessary for survival, like the digestive system, are shunted.
Our body breaks down due to the constant stress and can even result in:
- A weakened immune system
- Cardiovascular damage
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Decreased fertility
- Decrease in long-term memory
- Damage to certain parts of the brain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Premature aging
When President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, March 13, 2020, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, I immediately jumped into my car and headed to the grocery store.
When I got to the parking lot, it was full of vehicles and anxious people, but no shopping carts. The carts were usually littered throughout the lot or lined up neatly inside the corrals.
After I parked, I happened to find a cart perched on a concrete curb stop, and grabbed it quickly before anyone else could. When I walked through the doors, I could almost feel the fear pulsing throughout the store.
People were panic shopping, including myself. I was expecting to see almost empty shelves and bins like the news had portrayed. Curiously, most of the vegetables and fruits were still there.
I did notice that the root vegetable bins were nearly picked clean. So I found myself stocking up on those, plus bananas, apples, and more than we eat on a normal basis.
There was an unusually low hum as I foraged for more food and maneuvered my cart, trying to avoid bumping into other shoppers and carts. As I passed people, I saw basketfuls of bottled water, soda, canned soup, chicken, eggs, milk, and ramen.
Empty shelves lined the aisles where non-perishable items once sat. Overall, though, the grocery store looked about 75% full.
One lady got sassy with me when she turned away from her cart and I thought she was done grabbing enough eggs to feed an army. I politely motioned with my hand for her to get ahead of me so she can move her cart.
She replied curtly, “I’m not finished yet.” So I just ignored her and grabbed my own single carton of eggs and continued shopping. As I walked along, I judged her for succumbing to fear and following the herd.
Then I looked down at my own cart and saw it overflowing with food and I wasn't even done shopping yet. I hadn't realized that I, too, was walking around in a subdued frenzy, mindlessly stockpiling for doomsday.
Up until that moment, I thought I was behaving like a thinking, rational human being, contrary to my fellow shoppers. In reality, my apt for reasoning and logic had succumbed to fear.
How fear is interpreted in the brain.
The impact of my behavior had not settled in until I got home and had to find a place to put everything. I asked myself, was it really necessary to go out and purchase more than we needed? What was it that caused me to feel scared and why did I behave in that way?
One way to understand why we behave the way we do when we are scared is to learn how our brain interprets fear.
The fear mechanism.
Although the exact system is not understood completely, studies show that there are structures that play key roles in the mechanism of fear. The limbic system is said to be responsible for processing emotions and behavior. They are the:
- Limbic cortex
The amygdala is thought to be the main player for interpreting the emotion of fear. When we receive information about a threat, the amygdala receives this and activates the fight or flight response. It basically:
- Releases hormones that pump more blood to the muscles.
- Increases the heart rate.
- Allows your body to use more sugar for quick energy.
- Dilates the pupils to improve your vision.
- Expands the airways to take in more oxygen.
This enables a person to act quickly and get out of harm's way without having to think so much. This means that the amygdala can essentially take over your ability to reason and cause you to behave irrationally and inappropriately.
This explains why I got scared and bought more food than I needed in the grocery store. The part of my brain that is responsible for higher thinking and reasoning was hijacked by fear.
Although this explains my behavior, experts have stated that the interpretation of and reaction to fear varies in differing degrees.
Types of fear.
Even though the mechanism wasn't completely understood, researchers from the same study stated that fear can be broken down into 3 major categories.
Fear and panic are immediate responses to stressors in the environment. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a lower grade of fear.
The neural pathways for all three types of fear are similar, but there are competing theories about the way a person perceives fear stimuli.
Anxiety is a type of fear that modern day humans face more commonly than fear and panic. We learned in the previous section that the constant onslaught of anxiety can have detrimental effects on the body.
Fear is a response that was meant to protect you, but what can you do so that fear doesn't consume your life? Here are 8 tips to help you overcome fear the next time you are faced with it.
"Fear is: False Evidence Appearing Real"
How to overcome and manage your fear in 8 ways.
1. Surrender to the fear.
When we are in fear, our brains are hardwired to have a fight or flight response. One way that can help you overcome fear is by letting go and surrendering.
Surrendering is facing your fear and allowing it to run its course. Since you're probably not using your brain for higher functions like thinking and reasoning, you don't have to understand why you're feeling scared.
You're also letting go of control and giving it up to a higher power. The purpose of surrender is to allow your body to process the fear and then come back down so the relaxation response is activated and your body can come back to equilibrium with greater ease.
Breathing is regarded as an effective technique in counteracting anxiety and its detrimental effects.
The next time you're faced with fear or anxiety, it might help to just breathe into it. This redirects your focus on your inward and outward breath and allows you to take a step back and let the feeling pass.
Deep breathing might calm you right away or it could take some time to settle your nerves. Just be sure you take slow, deep breaths so you don’t hyperventilate or pass out.
Meditation is another tool that you can use to overcome fear. There are many types of meditation out there. The simplest one is just to focus on slow, deep breaths inward into the belly and expel outward.
What I like about this one is it can be used anytime and anyplace because sometimes fear will pop up unexpectedly.
My favorite way to practice mindfulness meditation is in the morning in my bedroom before everyone is up because it's very still and quiet and I can train my mind to come back to the present moment with little to no interruption.
Find a quiet place where you can sit upright comfortably. Start breathing gently in and out. When your mind wanders, bring your focus back to your breath.
You don't have to sit for a very long time to practice mindfulness. You can also practice while you're walking, eating, or doing your chores.
4. Emotion map.
This is one of my favorite ways to help overcome fear or unpleasant emotions. Grab a pen and paper and list all the words related to what you are feeling. For example, when I feel fear, I write it down and then I look up the synonyms for it on Google.
Then I write them down. Some examples are:
If I can, I write down what might have triggered it. Was it a thought, image, or something I heard?
Lastly, I write down any sensations I feel in my body, such as heart racing, butterflies in stomach, etc.
Putting the words on paper allows you to see what you are feeling without attaching to and internalizing the fear.
5. Step away.
Sometimes you need to step away in order to clear your head. What I mean by this is you can go for a walk for a few minutes or engage in an activity that can help calm your nerves.
Doing something other than sitting, lying down, or thinking about the fear might be enough to take your mind off of it. This doesn't mean you're running away from it or stuffing it down inside.
It's giving yourself a life raft for times when you feel overwhelmed by fear. Try to engage fully in the activity until you are in a calmer state so you can better manage your fear.
6. Embrace or face your fear.
We tend to run away from things that scare us or are unpleasant. If you are experiencing fear, try embracing it or staring it in the face. Sit down and be curious about your fear. It might be unpleasant or difficult but ignoring it probably won't make it go away.
Don't attach any thoughts and simply observe what is happening. It may take a few minutes or may be longer, but stay with it. If you need to, get some help with it from someone you trust like a family member, friend, or spiritual leader. Or you can even ask help from a professional like a therapist or doctor.
It may seem strange to focus on gratitude when you're feeling afraid, but it can actually help to redirect your focus if you're feeling anxious or worried. Not only this, gratitude fosters compassion for yourself and others.
Try writing 3 things you are grateful for each night. Keep track of what you are feeling as well. See if this can help you refocus and direct your attention out of your head and into the present moment.
8. RAIN Method.
The RAIN method, created by Tara Brach, is another excellent tool to help you overcome fear or any unpleasant emotion you are experiencing. R.A.I.N. is an acronym for Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Non-identification. Here are the steps:
R-Recognize what is happening.
Acknowledge that you are having a fearful or unpleasant emotion. Most of the time, we don’t even recognize the unpleasant emotion we are experiencing, unless we are actively engaged in self-awareness. Listen to your body with loving-kindness.
A-Allow life to be just what it is.
Overcome fear by allowing it to pass through you completely. It is very unpleasant and downright uncomfortable, but only temporary.
For instance, a woman is afraid that she will never find a partner and become lonely. Rather than allow the emotion to pass, she allows herself to be taken advantage of because at least she is not alone.
The true source of her fear may be deeply rooted in something entirely different from what she believes it to be.
I-Investigate with kindness.
Overcome fear with kindness by placing your attention to what is happening to your body. When you become aware of the feeling of fear, you can observe where in your body you are feeling it.
Investigating with kindness allows you to open up to more self-inquiry. For instance, the nervousness you feel in your stomach might seem spontaneous but with further probing, its source originated from somewhere else.
N-Non-identification, natural loving awareness.
Non-identification is non-attachment to any thoughts, beliefs, feelings or emotions. It is your natural state of being. When you strip away all of your labels, the core of your true essence could be seen with greater ease.
Fear can feel intense, painful and even overwhelming. It can be so bad that it could lead us to behave irrationally, like panic shopping. It can even make us turn away from it and never want to look back.
However, if you ignore a fear, sometimes it comes back and feels worse than it originally did. Instead of living in constant fear, we have the capacity to recognize it and overcome it with practical tools like mindfulness meditation, gratitude, and facing your fear.
I hope you found these tips to help manage and overcome your fear helpful! Do you have any stories or tips on how you overcame your fear? Please let me know in the comments below!