Whenever we have an experience, however we take in an experience via our myriad senses, it arrives in our awareness already awash in colorful emotions.
Our experience processing network, aka, our nervous system, takes in far more information that our consciousness can handle. We only see a tiny portion of the light spectrum, we only hear a narrow range of sound waves, and we hardly smell anything at all. Our big, expensive brains need a way to receive really important information – that which impacts our ability to protect, provide, and procreate – so we can make effective choices before we even think it.
Thanks to our successful ancestors, we are able to act before we think based on basic emotions. We literally feel before we think as experiences pass through our amygdala (our emotion center) before reaching our cortex, let alone our pre-frontal cortex where executive decisions are made. Regardless of what any scientist, teacher, or parent has ever told you – all of our decisions are emotional. Rationality is useful and requires intentional practice, and it is still colored by emotion. So in situations of stress or danger, our most reliable ally is our most basic emotion.
We have few, if any, ancestors who were fearless, because fearless people die early. Fear’s function is an alert or alarm system. Regardless of what we do about it, fear shows up with a neon flashing sign telling us “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Whether it’s a jaguar, a speaking engagement, a courtroom, a gun, or a visit from the in-laws – fear gets us focused on what is really important in this moment.
Then we fight or flee, right? Maybe. This is another falsehood we’ve been fed that defies our actual experience and capabilities. We actually have at least SIX stress/fear responses. The fight-or-flight response model was actually based – I kid you not – on experiments in the U.S. in the 1950s exclusively carried out with male…rats.
Now I hold rats in very high regard overall and have known some very kind, brilliant, fine rats; however, they are not human. Humans respond to fear in different ways to accomplish different outcomes. So what are they?
Fight: overcome the source of the fear
Flight: flee the source of the fear
Freeze: stop to assess the source of the fear or allow it to pass by
Fake: change appearance or sound to cause the source of the fear to stop and assess
Care: address the perceived needs of the source of the fear
Connect: establish a relationship with the source of the fear
The first two responses share the basic action of separating us from whatever is scaring us. The second pair both function to buy some time, if possible. The third pair both keep us engaged with what is scaring us. These additional four responses all share the potential for transforming our experience of fear and even transforming the source of our fear. The initial two, because they separate us from the source and experience of the fear, function to reinforce that the source of fear is always scary and, therefore, bad.
We all use all six of these in various ways, frequencies, and circumstances. I know that when I get extremely scared, I get pissed (fight). Seriously – don’t scare me, you’ll get hurt. As a kid and into early adulthood, my chaotic environment taught me to freeze and allow the crazy to go by and maybe not notice me. In other situations where I’m facing a challenge to my worldview, when someone tells or shows me that what I think is true is not, I get curious and connect with the real fear of losing my grip on reality.
When you reflect on real feelings of fear, what do you notice? What do you do? How does that serve you?