Fear – How It Works

Summary of Core Concepts

Fear is an immediate reaction to a perceived threat.

There are three sources of fear:

  1. Real and immediate Threats;
  2. Thoughts about past or future threats;
  3. Built-up Tension from trauma, stress, exhaustion, or the restricted experience of emotion.

Our brain does not distinguish between fear from threats, thoughts, or tension. All sources of fear have a similar effect on body, mind, and emotions.

Fear from all sources grabs our attention and provides a surge of energy that drives us to take immediate action. This has been called the fight or flight response because the energy is directed to our muscles to allow us to fight or run from threats. Tension builds if this energy is not discharged through physical action.

Mental and physical processes not necessary for immediate survival shut down or are greatly diminished when we are in a state of fear.

Fear draws our mind to narrowly focus on possible threats and seek quick, simple solutions.

Fear can provide motivation when energy and focus are lacking but at the cost of decreased awareness, clear thinking and diminished health make restoring balance a much more effective use of time.

What’s Happening in the Body

The autonomic nervous system is key in the state of fear. It’s the part of our nervous system that determines where energy goes in our body. This appears to drive most other physical, mental, and emotional reactions to fear. There are two parts of this nervous system and, for the most part, only one is active at a time. The sympathetic nervous system supports physical activity while the parasympathetic nervous system handles maintenance such as digesting food, fighting off disease, helping us recover from disease etc..

Fear activates the sympathetic nervous system and sends a surge of energy to muscles (Fight/Flight Response) while suppressing the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are in a state of fear, the body’s capacity to perform functions necessary to maintain health and well-being is severely limited.

If the energy surge to the muscles is not discharged through immediate action, tension starts to build.

Muscles that lift or pull us up away from the ground tense most when we are in a state of fear. We curl our toes, lock our knees, pull up our belly, raise our shoulders and clench our jaw.

The body’s maintenance system essentially shuts down when we are in a state of fear.

Slow Down and Lighten Up – Chapter 7 – Reaction: My Nerves Are Shot

What’s Happening in the Mind (Thoughts and Awareness)

Thoughts and experience create pathways (connections between neurons) in our brain that can be compared to roads.

Pathways become easier to access the more often we repeat or dwell on particular thoughts and experiences, (Imagine walking or driving on the same path a number of times each day. The path becomes easier to access the more it is used. Paths frequently used are turned into paved roads and highways.) Fear tends to create pathways that can be compared to limited access expressways in this analogy.

Well established pathways form mental habits. We can travel on them without being aware of it. (When you drive home, you don’t have to think about how to get there because that pathway has been accessed often over a long period of time.)

Pathways associated with emotion, especially fear, work faster and come into awareness much more quickly than those created by thinking or reasoning. They are also more likely to endure.

Since fear pushes us toward action and comes into awareness more quickly, we tend not to ask questions when in a state of fear. We accept our first impression of the nature and extent of the threat without exploring it further.

Thinking about threats leads to a similar physical, mental, and emotional reactions as being in the presence of an immediate threat.

When we believe that we “know” something, the mind tends to filter out information that might contradict that knowledge and our focus is drawn to what confirms it. (Confirmation bias)

We tend to be drawn to people who share our beliefs and be uncomfortable with those who believe differently. This feeds the human need for a sense of belonging and leads to becoming more convinced that we are “right” and that others are “wrong.” (Group Polarization)

Confirmation bias and group polarization are fed by fear and create a tendency to not question the information we receive or the accuracy of its sources.

Awareness has three different aspects: Frame, Filter, and Focus based on an analogy from photography.

  • The frame limits our capacity to take in new information. This is restricted by our understanding of the world, our beliefs, and biases. (When a photograph is put in a frame, we only see the parts of the scene that the camera captured.)
  • The filter is emotional coloring. (Different colored filters on a camera change the view of the scene.)
  • Focus is what we pay attention to. (It’s what we see clearly in a camera’s viewfinder.)

Fear shrinks our frame, colors our filter, and either fixes or scatters our focus. The build-up of tension from stress, exhaustion, or the restricted experience of emotion has the same effect.

Fear pulls our awareness to focus on potential threats while blocking other input. If there is no immediate threat, our minds are drawn to difficulties in the past or possible threats in the future.

Slow Down and Lighten Up – Chapter 4 – Perception: All the Difference in the World

Slow Down and Lighten Up – Chapter 8 – Reaction: My Mind Is Spinning

What’s Happening with Emotions

Emotions are primarily physical experiences. We “feel” emotions in our bodies. There is measurable movement in various muscles when we experience emotion.

We can block the experience of emotion by tensing specific muscles and holding our breath.

Emotions provide an overall read on the moment.

Emotions are a response to our perception – what we focus on and how we view it determines our emotional response.

Emotions are temporary, momentary experiences. Emotions change when our focus and perceptions change.

Emotions are different and separate from thought. Thought and emotion are associated with different parts of the brain and each can exist without the other (even though we tend to link them).

Chronic tension and habits of restricted breathing block our capacity to fully experience emotion.

When tension increases to a certain point it can lead to a flood of emotion that can be overwhelming. This is a common with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Emotions blocked by tension are often experienced when that tension is released.

A gradual release of tension allows emotions held by tension tends to be experienced in ways that can be easily managed.

Every emotion serves a function. Fear prepares us for an immediate threat. Anger attempts to push the threat away.

Slow Down and Lighten Up – Chapter 9 – Reaction: Emotional Sunburn

Description of Body-Mind-Emotion Relationship Video

What Goes Wrong