Fear – What Goes Wrong

Summary of Key Points

Fear that comes from thought, the build up of tension, or trauma feels the same as fear from an immediate threat. The body, mind, and emotions respond to all sources of fear as if there is imminent danger. This can lead to a prolonged state of fear in the absence of real threats.

Prolonged fear builds tension which throws us out of balance, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Excess tension creates a hair trigger for the fear reaction. We tend to react more quickly with less thought and more intense emotion. We’re more likely to act on impulse and make snap judgments as tension builds.

The build up of tension resulting from prolonged fear draws our mind to focus on possible sources of fear that may have no relation to the actual source. Thinking about potential or imagined threats creates more fear leading to a self-escalating spiral of fear and tension.

The desire to take immediate action resulting from fear leads to hurry, impatience, and pressure. This significantly decreases our awareness and efficiency. We work harder and accomplish less with more mistakes. We tend to act without thinking clearly or considering history, context or consequences. This puts us at risk for latching onto simplistic solutions that are not realistic or practical.

Prolonged fear leads us to overcompensate for an increasing sense of powerlessness. This often results in complications and mis-perceptions that make things worse.

  • We try to take control when it is not appropriate or helpful.
  • We give up control to others without considering their qualifications or competence or even whether they are truly concerned about our interests.
  • We seek a strong leader without questioning where and how we are being led.

Fear makes us more likely to become frustrated. It easily triggers anger.

The use of fear is not an effective tool to insure safety. It’s more likely to trigger anger and retaliation than to disperse or prevent violence. Even when it seems to “work” in the short term, it creates resentment that can smoulder for a long time before it flares up again with even more intensity.

Fear can also lead to denying that threats exist.

Prolonged fear is a significant contributor to symptoms of every mental health diagnosis.

What Goes Wrong – Body

Prolonged fear keeps the sympathetic nervous system activated and the parasympathetic suppressed.

Most body maintenance functions shut down when we’re in a state of fear. When there’s prolonged fear and stress, systems that maintain health don’t get sufficient energy to function properly.

The immune system, which fights off disease and viruses, is severely limited during states of extended fear and stress. The body’s capacity to recover from injury and illness is also significantly restricted when the sympathetic nervous system is dominant for long periods of time.

Stress hormones are released into the blood stream during intense or prolonged fear. These hormones keep the sympathetic nervous system activated and the parasympathetic nervous system suppressed even when we try to rest.

The liver clears stress hormones from the blood stream when the parasympathetic nervous system is active. When the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, the liver produces sugar to provide extra energy for the muscles, which then builds more tension.

During prolonged states of fear and stress, when energy in the muscles is not discharged through action, we tend to hold back our natural reaction of fight or flight. This creates habitual patterns of tension that we’re often not aware of until they result in pain or injury. This continual build up of tension keeps the sympathetic nervous system activated and can lead to a host of physical, mental, and emotional disorders. It makes us more vulnerable to injury, mistakes, and breakdowns.

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

What Goes Wrong – Mind

Fear restricts our awareness. We become closed to new information and sources of information. This narrows the frame through which we view the world. Our emotions becomes colored and clouded, limiting and filtering what we’re able to perceive. Our focus becomes either fixed or scattered. We easily miss relevant information and have difficulty shifting focus in order to adapt to changing needs.

Fear inhibits learning, creativity, and new ways of seeing things. Our mind tends to be pulled to how we responded before even when this doesn’t fit the current situation. The capacity to view things from different perspectives is severely restricted.

We tend to lose track of values, priorities, meaning, and purpose when we are in a state of fear.

Fear keeps us from adapting to changing conditions or learning from failure. It stops us from seeking to understand what went wrong. We tend to repeats mistakes that could have been easily corrected if we saw what was happening more clearly.

Prolonged fear and tension attracts stress like velcro. It draws our mind to repeatedly list everything that’s wrong in our lives without doing anything about it. It diminishes our capacity to separate and organize issues so we can effectively deal with them one at a time.

Prolonged fear and the build-up of tension leads us to use statements such as “I’m overwhelmed” or “I can’t handle this,” which increase fear and tension.

Prolonged fear leads us to asking an expanding list of unhelpful questions. These often take the form of “What if.” We jump from question to question without answering them. This multiplies our stressors and keeps us from understanding and dealing with them.

Fear prevents us from putting things into perspective or setting clear priorities. It sends us off into the weeds where we can spend an inordinate amount of time on minor issues that really don’t make much of a difference.

Fear-based Thinking

Fear-based thinking is formed by mental habits produced in reaction to prolonged fear. It becomes our usual way of thinking about and perceiving the world even when not in a state of fear or stress.

Fear-based thinking leads us to interpret events exclusively in terms of danger or risk even when there are more reasonable explanations. We create and magnify problems by our reaction to them.

Fear based thinking leads to interpreting information and making decisions in term of either/or, for/against. It becomes easy to interpret disagreement as a threat and to classify those who disagree with us as uncaring, uninformed, misguided or worse.

The desire for control and inability to see context and priorities resulting from Fear-based Thinking leads us to spend extra time on minor issues while ignoring more serious concerns.

Fear-based thinking leads to regular use of the word “should.” “Should” implies that there’s an authority who knows what’s happening. It creates pressure while restricting our ability to think through priorities and likely outcomes.

Fear-based thinking draws us toward blame, judgment, and resentment. We quickly label people and ideas into fixed, dead-end categories that keep us from learning more about them. These labels and categories become more entrenched with less thought as fear and tension increase.

Fear-based thinking pulls us toward a desire for certainty. We latch onto what may appear to be clear, hard facts without thinking it through, considering the interests of the source, or seeking other perspectives. We reject doubt and confusion and disregard opportunities to broaden and deepen our understanding. This easily leads to latching onto simplistic solutions seen as the ONLY answer. We seek justification for our beliefs rather an explanation of what’s happening.

Fear-based thinking leads us to seek allies to confirm our fears and provide reasons to justify it. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories and can result in the formation of movements that promote reactions to minor or non-existing threats.

Fear-Based Thinking leads to rigid expectations that don’t fit the reality of the situation.

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


Understanding Fear – Introduction to Fear-Based Thinking
Fear-Based Thinking Part 2
How We Get Stuck in Fear-Based Thinking Part 3
Recognizing Fear-Based Thinking Part 4
Responding to Fear-Based Thinking Part 5

What Goes Wrong – Emotion

Fear colors our vision. We are more likely to interpret events in terms of risk or danger when in a state of fear. Increasing tension makes it more likely that we will exaggerate risks and interpret harmless situations as threats.

Emotions that have been blocked or numbed by prolonged fear or fear-based thinking are easily triggered by incidents that would be considered minor if were in balance. Things that may not have bothered us if we were in balance spark an intense reaction that often complicates the situation.

Emotional tension from trauma or habits of restricting emotion can be triggered by increasing stress, exhaustion, or thoughts and experiences that may remind us of things related to that trauma.

Fear and emotional tension create a sunburn-like response where a slight or even neutral provocation can trigger inappropriate anger that complicates situations and damages relationships.

Prolonged fear and emotional tension lead to rigid expectations and increased intolerance, make it more likely that we will become impatient and frustrated.

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

Video – Understanding PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

What Works