What are you afraid of? The dark? Clowns? Flying? Death? Halloween is well past us and the Ebola scare seems to have died down, but it seems there is always something looming around the corner. Fear is something we’ve all experienced, with extreme variance from person to person. It can manifest and be experienced in so many different ways, whether it’s welcomed or unconscious.
Naturally, fear is a necessary and primal instinct for survival–it keeps us alive. When faced with something dangerous or threatening, fear activates the fight or flight response in hopes of giving us the best chances to survive. Imagine hiking on a trail and coming across a huge, black bear. What do you do? You become afraid, meaning you have a neurological response that communicates to your body that it needs to react. The neurological response becomes physiological, and you might start to sweat, feel your heart rate increase, and notice your breathing become more shallow. These sensations in your body alert you that it’s time to take action. Do you run? Scream? Freeze? Play dead? All of these are actions in response to fear.
What’s interesting about fear is that it can be utilized to keep us alive, but can also be used to keep us problematically, and sometimes strategically stuck. Some fears are innate, having always existed in us, while others are learned, from personal experience, family, media, or other external sources. Some fears are rational and legitimate reactions to threats to our lives, while others simply, are not. How do you know the difference between the two? When should fear be reacted to and when should you consider letting it go? It might help to ask yourself a few questions, like: What is it that you are afraid of? Why? Are you actually in danger? Has the feared stimulus ever, in fact, harmed you? Where did the fear come from? Is this fear actually yours or did it come from someone/somewhere else? Is this fear serving you? Is this fear hindering or limiting you?
Asking yourself these questions could be an important step in understanding the role of fear in your life. How is fear impacting your daily decisions and interactions? As stated earlier, experiences of fear vary drastically from person to person. Some people develop specific phobias, or irrational fears of specific objects or situations. Some common phobias are fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of spiders (arachnophobia), and fear of heights (acrophobia). These are the types of phobias that often come up in conversation, are shared among friends, and sometimes even joked about. These kinds of fears, of certain objects or situations may be easier to admit and accept because they are personal, and mostly experienced internally. If you’re afraid of heights, you’re likely to respond by avoiding high places. It is unlikely that this fear will significantly affect anyone, but you. However, there are other fears that are not only personal, but interpersonal. When your phobia is Muslims (Islamophobia), gay people (homophobia), or Black Men, your fear does not only affect you. Perhaps this fear is unconscious and learned from media or family history. And perhaps you employ the method of avoidance, similar to the person who is afraid of heights, by not interacting with this group of people. Perhaps this keeps your fear at bay and minimizes the potential harm that might result from an interaction with your feared stimulus.
But what happens when the feared stimulus is unavoidable? Imagine walking down the street and there is a Black man approaching. What do you do? You become afraid, meaning you have a neurological response that communicates to your body that it needs to react. As your brain and body communicate, you start to take action. Do you clutch your purse? Call the police? Cross the street? Start a fight? Kill him? All of these are potential actions in response to fear. And therein lies the real danger. The taboo of admitting these types of fears leads to general acceptance of rote reactions to perceived threats that are just that: perceptions–things that may or may not even be real. We’ve been learning to be afraid for so long, that our minds and bodies have mastered the ability to justify our false, irrational, and illogical panic. So long that the biological response has become automatic. Many of us have taken little to no time to really examine our fear and what underlies it. Consequently, our unexamined fear lies stagnant, in wait, until it is triggered. And when triggered, we react. Our reaction might be subtle, maybe avoidance or covert disdain. Other times, our reactions are aggressive or violent. Either way, this is a problem. When (imagined) perceptions lead to real interactions fueled by fear, the likely outcome will almost always be harmful.
The above example involves an interpersonal interaction between individuals, but this way of relating is not limited to person-to-person. This pattern is expanded and exacerbated when, through common experience, entire groups learn to fear a specific stimuli. In this way fear is built into systems, institutions, cultures, and entire societies. When fear is consumed by masses, the responses to the fear become even more engrained and normalized, and ultimately more problematic and harmful.
Living a life ruled by fear has perilous consequences. Some people miss opportunities of a lifetime because they’re afraid. We’ve seen interactions based in unconscious fear turn deadly. What would happen if you took the time to examine the origins of your fears? Ask yourself the questions listed earlier and see what you learn. Moreover, see what you can unlearn. Some fears don’t really belong to you. Release them. Allow for space to find things that aren’t yours and let them go. With this letting go will come a perspective change. Perceptions will likely better match reality and bring about more authentic interactions. Letting go of fear will also reduce stress and produce more contentment. On the other side of fear there is courage. Along with courage comes freedom. There, you might also find more empathy and understanding. We can all move in limitless freedom and courage, if we allow ourselves and each other. Don’t let fear keep you from the places you need to go or things you’re destined to do. Utilize fear when it is necessary–when there is an actual threat to your life. Otherwise, just live.