This your brain on fear
People appear to be more afraid of the world than ever, especially with the spread of the Corona virus and the accompanying mind-boggling run on toilet paper. I’ve been through lots of survival training and TP has never been mentioned as an essential item for surviving. But I digress. Neuroscientists assert that fear is “killing us.” But why is that? Fear is a chain reaction in our brains. First, the media swamps us with messages about fear or we see something that frightens us. We experience anxiety and panic and our muscles begin to tense up. Our heartbeats speed up tremendously and we begin to breathe quickly. Blood surges into our muscles. We prepare to protect ourselves from danger by entering the fight-or-flight (or hoard toilet paper) mode to make us safe. This entire process happens very quickly and automatically. But this response can also harm us. A University of Minnesota claims that “once the fear pathways are ramped up, the brain short-circuits more rational processing paths, perceives events as negative and remembers them that way.” Consequently, every time we encounter a similar fear stimulus, we experience the full range of physical and emotional responses because these cues were associated with previous danger, our brains may perceive them as threats. This is what is called fear conditioning.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
This is what people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience. Fear can do more than trick your memory and distort your perception of reality. It can cause “fatigue, chronic depression, accelerated aging and even premature death,” according to Professor Bessel van der Kolk, who led the University of Minnesota research team. “It can impact our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions,” he continues. Van der Kolk stresses, however, that we can defeat fear if we train ourselves to overcome a fear memory through fear-extinction. And we can do this by making positive associations with the fear that triggers our negative response. After some time, we have rewritten our fear memory and the stimulus no longer frightens us. In other words, we learn to control fear instead of allowing it to control us.
Fear and anxiety
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a fear that comes from the thought that something might take place or go wrong in the future instead rather than happening right now (think Corona virus). Fear can send powerful signals of response when we are experiencing an emergency such as a fire or an attack. But it doesn’t have to be a life-threatening emergency. Some people fear public speaking, being interviewed for a job, going to the dentist or even going out on a date. In other words, fear is a natural response to a real or perceived threat. The most common reaction in a fear situation is the attitude of, “I can’t do this!” And that stops us from acting. Whenever we’re in the grip of fear, we feel like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. But we aren’t helpless.
Embracing and understanding fear
Fear is there to keep us safe and help us make better decisions. View it as a tool that is neither good nor bad but exists to help us act in ways that yield the results we desire. When fear strikes, analyze the options and make a wise, well thought out choice rather than jumping to what seems right in the heat of the moment. Face your fears instead of turning away from them. Ignoring your fears will make them grow while facing them will make them shrink. Ask yourself just how big a deal this fear really is. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You just might find that the fear itself is worse than what you’re afraid will happen. Just remember, all fears are learned.
No one is born afraid
We aren’t born with fears. And that means that fears can be unlearned by facing them and training ourselves until the fear goes away. Our ability to confront, deal with and act regardless of our fears is the key to happiness and success. Once you’ve identified a fear, force yourself to move toward it. You’ll soon see that it will grow smaller and become more manageable. And as your fears grow smaller, your confidence grows larger. The best way to deal with your fears is to address them head-on. As Shakespeare said, “Take arms against a sea of troubles, and in so doing, end them.”