Fear is part of our being humans. We can no more be “fearless” than we can be “liverless.” It has been with fear that we have survived to evolve into terraformers, artists, and digital tool wielders. Our capacity for fear has also evolved; however, our culture has created a toxic environment that interferes with how we use this powerful tool. At its foundation, fear is an alert system; a sensation of fear says, “Pay attention! This is really important!” in an instant. Fear is present in risk, in love, and in grief. It spans all our lived experience and is BASIC to our survival, as well as an indicator for our thrival.
Contrary to what we have been taught, we have many options when we feel fear. While feeling fear is not optional in our day to day lives, how we respond to it is. On a day to day basis, we feel fear far more often about psychological issues and situations than actual physical threats to our survival.
This Is Your Brain on Fear
The amygdala is a tiny powerhouse in our brain which processes and conditions our responses to fear, addictions, sex drive, search for comfort, anger and many primitive responses that in primitive times kept us safe from harm. It is the part of the brain that has the power to inhibit the rest of the body’s systems so that you can accomplish the task at hand. It is our “lizard brain” and rather important for anything that might require energy and focus.
The amygdala regulates the biochemical soup that is released during a fear reaction. Based on prior conditioning, this soup can contain any combination and amount of any of the following:
- dopamine: rocket fuel triggered by “challenge”
- adrenaline: mainlined espresso triggered by defensiveness
- noradrenaline: organic steroids triggered by aggressiveness
- testosterone: the Hulk triggered by competition and domination
- cortisol: support staff for adrenaline and noradrenaline triggered by anxiety, frustration, guilt
- DHEA: happy-energy juice triggered by love
- serotonin: happy-relax juice triggered by appreciation
- endorphin: painkiller triggered by intensity
- oxytocin: group glue triggered by group efforts
However, the biochemical effects of an emotion last only 90 seconds. After that it is your conscious or conditioned choice to hold on to that emotion. While feeling fear is instinctive and necessary, our response is conditioned and shaped by choices over time. Whether our conditioning was conscious or not, was our choice or not, we have the power to change our conditioning with conscious intent.
A fear response that continues to fire without adequate rest affects all systems of the body, resulting in real physiologic changes and dis-ease. Our culture feeds on dis-ease and so is supported by a general fear-state in all of us. Parents, teachers, media, neighbors, and friends all try to “help” us by pointing out that we would be less lonely if we were to dress a particular way and frequent certain gathering places; that we would find a dedicated mate if we lost weight or cleared up our skin; that we would be more financially secure if we just tried harder to please the boss, meet the deadline, and not make waves. This constant and consistent fear-state robs us of the power of fear to discern what is truly important to us, while wreaking real damage to our physical bodies.