HOLIDAY SURVIVAL GUIDE (WEEK 9): ON FEAR AND STARTING NEW
I am fascinated by fear. I am a mental health professional and a human who has a nice long list of things I’m afraid of. As one of the four (yes! Only four!) primary human emotions, fear has a really important role in our life experience. It also has a pretty strange one when we consider where humans began and where we are now. Let’s start with the science!! It’s fun, I swear.
THE SCIENCE OF FEAR
Photo Credit: Edutopia
Fear really begins happening in our amygdala, the almond-shaped part of our brain that sits behind our eyes and just above our ears. There are two of these in there! We can think of the amygdala as our threat detection system. One of its primary functions is to act as an indicator that a threat has arrived. It sends information through to various parts of our brain in order to signal that it is time to do something about what’s happening in front of us.
It is the part of our brain that is also responsible, in large part, for our ability to process emotions as well as our experience of pleasure–which might be one of the reasons some folks really love scary movies or sky diving. The amygdala is also helpful in converting learned emotional experiences into memory. Though the amygdala sets off the cascade within our brain to signal that danger is afoot, it’s really just the messenger. The action we take to reduce the stressor comes from a different part of our brain. That’s a big job for a relatively small portion of our brains!
Functional MRIs (fMRI) of this part of our brain show an increase of activity when we’re processing through particularly emotional information. Which comes into play big time when we’re talking about fear. Let’s break it down even further, shall we?
WHAT *IS* FEAR?
Fear researchers refer to two different types of fear; fictional fear and factual fear. Fictional fear is the perception of danger in response to memories, imagined outcomes, and our brain’s preparation for what may become dangerous. Factual fear is the body’s response to very real, in the moment, “holy crap this is happening” fear. The distinction is really important when we talk about what we can do about fear when it pops up.
If it’s factual, the answer is probably to do what you gotta do to survive! If it’s fictional, we may have a certain level of control over the behavioral responses we have when fear shows up. Fear, however, goes beyond what the natural world has in store for humans (lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!) and is incredibly dependent on the respective cultures from which we come. We are taught about our own emotions beginning early in our lives–including and especially fear. This process becomes particularly important when we start talking about trauma. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll hold off on that, but expect it soon!
I talked a bit more about the social impact of fear in the blog series on shame. You can find that here!
FEAR AND STRESS FEEL THE SAME
According to fear researcher and scientist, Mary Poffenroth, fear and stress are the same things. We have different words for them and definitely different cultural experiences of them, but as far as our bodies are concerned? Same. Damn. Thing. More on stress here! Our bodies are reacting to neutral experiences and creating meaning from them after the event has passed.
In the moment of intense fear or stress, most everything in our bodies shifts over to being able and ready to go or put up a fight. Our digestion slows and our heart rate increases. The blood that is shunted away from our digestive system begins to flow into our extremities (fun fact: the feeling of getting butterflies is this very thing happening!) so that when the time comes to face the adverse stimuli, we are ready.
This means we aren’t exactly available to process any of the emotional information until well after we’ve reached safety!
THE ROLE OF FEAR
Fear has an incredibly important role for us. Truth be told, humans wouldn’t have made it this far if we didn’t have that handy dandy alarm system built-in. And just like stress, much of what our body is primed to be afraid of just doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, we have developed new ways of making meaning of our fear. Most often, we don’t acknowledge it at all. Instead, we begin to tune out the noise of fear and replace it with an easier to manage emotion; or at least one that has less shame and stigma associated with it. Lots of us move toward anger, some of us move toward sadness, and still others of us develop ways of managing our fear that can become really detrimental.
If we were to very carefully peel back the layers of our feelings, I would imagine we might find fear lurking beneath the surface way more often than we think. Think about shame for a moment. If we really contend with what’s underneath our experience of shame, more likely than not, we’re afraid of something. We might be afraid of social rejection, afraid of physical harm, or afraid that we are going to be left resourceless in the wilderness. So we develop an internal method of keeping ourselves within the perceived social norm–shame.
We feel fear when we don’t feel safe. The sensations that we experience with fear are all the signals our bodies need to get safe again. At the end of the day, our brain’s primary function is to make sure we stay alive and we’ll do whatever it takes to reach that goal.
CHANGE CAN BE SCARY
So, why the focus on fear for the last installment of the Holiday Survival Guide? Well, my habit-loving mammal friends, change can be scary for us. A great number of the habits we build in our lives are to mitigate risk. We develop routines based around comfort and, you guessed it, safety. So as so many of us are setting goals and confronting change at the shift into a new year, fear is likely to come up in some way. In some ways, it seems like we use our resolutions to cope with fear, too. Fear of our ephemeral mortality comes to mind. It’s complex! We are complex!
Making the choice to change something we have often relied on for a feeling of security can bring up all kinds of stuff. Even the stuff we developed in order to cope in the first place.
For example, let’s think of the handy dandy resolution to quit smoking. We have all heard that smoking cigarettes is closely linked to the development of serious health conditions. So, it makes a whole lotta sense that we want to quit. The start of a whole new year is a great time to kick the habit, and it gets more complicated when we think about what we use smoking for and what we’re leaving behind. Many people report that smoking nicotine helps reduce stress (fear).
So when we start to kick the habit, we’re not only coming head to head with the addictive qualities of nicotine. We are also contending with a brain that no longer has immediate relief from fear in the moment. Which can make changing the habit that much more challenging. The same can be said for all of the things we so quickly rush to change at the beginning of a new year, really. Something that is habitual for you may be involved in mitigating risk and managing fear! So it makes a whole lot of sense that those habits die hard.
WHAT WE CAN DO
More than anything, I really think that awareness is the first step. Well, that and radical vulnerability. NBD, right? In all seriousness, being able to take a step back and view yourself as a living creature can really help in what we do about the overwhelming nature of change. We are taught throughout our lives what is or isn’t okay to feel. Often, those messages aren’t explicit, but rather things we learn through observation.
Fear, for a great number of us, is an emotional response we are taught to avoid, to tamp down, and to hide from the rest of the world. The trouble comes when we hide those certain truths from even ourselves. By being able to safely say to ourselves, “this is fear in action,” we might be able to interrupt the behavioral process that comes after it. If we feel ourselves very quickly descending into the world of stress or fear, we can learn to have more control over what comes next.
WHAT CAN WE CONTROL?
In fact, research shows that Buddhist monks who practice compassionate meditation often have a pretty impressive level of control over their amygdala. While we may not have a say in the external world or what happens to us, we most often can do something about how we respond. If I know a certain situation is likely to cause stress, and that stress is likely to result in my reaching for a cigarette, my task might be to find an alternative to smoking that can have the same impact. Most important to this process of awareness is also compassion. It probably won’t have the same impact if you notice the fear and the desire to do something about it, but then turn to beating yourself up for being afraid in the first place.
Remember that you are a living, breathing, and a quite squishy creature who really, really wants to feel safe. It’s hard to feel safe when someone is yelling at you. That includes us yelling at ourselves.
FEAR AND STARTING NEW: THE TAKEAWAY
More than anything, my hope is that the takeaway from this post is to begin to shift the way we think about change and the fear of it. It makes sense that we resist change until we’re able to figure out a way to integrate it into our lived experience. As we embark on this new year, facing fear may have a really big role in not only enjoying our experience of change for the better but also making change that is lasting and impactful.
What fears are you facing as you set out into the brand new year ahead of us? In what ways can you embrace compassion for yourself as you gently tread into new ground? How might you feel safe even as you slowly move away from old comforting habits? Do you also think of The Waterboy every time you say the word amygdala?
Happy New Year, soft and squishy humans!