Understanding Fear – Introduction

Nothing is more important in a crisis than to think clearly. But fear and clear thinking are like oil and water. They don’t mix. One pushes the other away.

Fear puts our body, mind and emotions in crisis mode and prepares us to run, fight, or freeze. Everything not essential for survival shuts down so all our energy can be used to deal with what seems like an immediate threat. Crisis mode is like being chased by a bear. We don’t stop and think about where we’re going. We don’t pay attention to what we might be stepping on or in. We don’t pause to assess the best course of action. We just get the hell out of there.

We don’t reach out or try to understand what’s happening when we’re in crisis mode. We don’t listen or learn. There is no time for creativity or new ways of seeing things. Our mind is pulled to simple, quick solutions and what seemed to work before, even when it may be the worst possible thing we could do.

We hear it all the time: “Don’t panic!” “Don’t make decisions based on fear!” How do we do that when there’s something to be afraid of and decisions have to be made? How do we do that when we’re on the verge of a panic? How do we do that when a very real threat could be as close as the tip of a finger that just touched an infected doorknob?

Those are valid questions. I’ve been fortunate to find some reasonable answers to them in forty plus years of working with people struggling with fear. Some were stuck reacting to threats from the past or the possibility of loss in the future. A number were simply exhausted and stressed out – the build up of tension got their thinking stuck in everything that did or could go wrong. More than a few were actively violent. I had to learn to manage my own fear in order to help them. Some may have wanted to kill me. One pressed a gun to my temple – my life was a quarter inch finger squeeze from ending right there.

There were three things that were consistently helpful in these situations. The first was restoring calm and slowing down enough in order to respond rather than react. When we experience fear, it’s important to restore Balance. The second involves Accepting the situation as it is and the people involved without getting distracted by judgment, blame, worry, or “awfulizing.” Acceptance puts our feet on the ground and allows us to see what’s happening in the moment while minimizing distraction and distortion. The third step is to Clarify – to ask questions that help us see and understand what’s happening from different perspectives while considering history and context. That allows us to explore realistic options and weigh possible outcomes. I call these three steps “The ABC’s,” with the reminder to always start with Balance.

The ABC’s allow us to shift attention from “WHOA! THIS IS BAD!” to understanding how best to deal with whatever problem or threat is causing our fear. The ABC’s (Restoring Balance, learning to Accept people and situations for what they are, and Clarifying what’s happening and what we can do about it) helped me and a few thousand students and patients I was honored to work with transform fear into caution and concern. This can make all the difference in the world.

Fear narrows our awareness. Caution and concern allows our awareness to expand. Fear pulls our thoughts toward simplistic solutions or what we did before while pushing us to act immediately. Caution and Concern lead to gathering information, understanding context, history and timing. Caution and Concern free us to use time efficiently and discern what’s needed. Fear drives us to either cower and hide or charge forward with our head down. Caution and concern lead us to develop and adapt strategies that fit with changing circumstances. Fear draws us into making the same mistakes over and over. Caution and concern allow us to learn from setbacks and see each situation as a new challenge that we can learn how to manage.

Students and patients who were feeling the effects of unrelenting fear often asked “What’s happening to me?” I took that as a useful and intelligent question and worked over four decades to fine-tune clear answers that led to workable solutions.

This article lists the core concepts of what I have learned about fear in a series of short statements organized under four headings: How it Works; What Goes Wrong; What Works; and What Life Without Fear Looks Like. This provides a summary of a book, Understanding Fear: A New Perspective, which I hope to publish by the end of 2020. Links within each section provide access to draft material from the book and examples from my experience that illustrate the concepts presented. There are also links chapters of my earlier book, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension that apply to key points as well as handouts and videos that were used in training, presentations and a class I taught at Lansing Community College for over thirty-seven years.

How it Works