Is Fear Good For Us?

A movie-goer sits in a darkened air conditioned square room watching the giant illuminated screen in front of him. At this point he is calm, almost bored as he waits for his entertainment. Soon, the screen is filled with a tiger walking on the African plains. A hunter, unsuspecting, is eating breakfast in a clearing; when he hears the rustling of the tall grass. He looks over the field and see the wake of the grass as something is moving purposefully towards him. The hunter grasps his rifle and prepares to shoot. At the last moment the grass parts and it is small child lost on the plains. The movie-goer realizes that his heart is pounding quickly and he has been clasping the armrest.

So what was going on? For the hunter, he was using his evolutionary hunting and survival skills of imagination and object permanence to prepare for the potential danger of attack. For the movie-goer, he was doing the same. But were either the hunter or the audience member in real danger?

 

THE PURPOSE OF FEAR

fearEvery day there is some Facebook meme encouraging you to face your fears and live without fear. It makes for a lot of “likes” but if we lived without fear we may not have survived as a species. Fear is the psycho-physical response to danger and propels us to survive as an individual and a species. Many people are alive today because their fear responses kept them alive.

For example, a fish swims along the coral reef. It sees something delicious to eat and as it approaches an eel strikes out at the fish who narrowly escapes the jaws of death. The fish goes to another reef and finds some tasty food and cautiously swims up and eats in the safety of the other reef. Now the brain records the dangers that we encounter more deeply and permanently than we do the positives. So much so that when a totally different reef and food is encountered, the little fish is cautious. It remembers this looks like danger. And it will NEVER forget the reef that is home to the eel. Fear helps us survive.

And while most memories are recorded in the advanced cortex of the brain for processing at a later date, really important data is also directly input into the deepest core of the brain (the hippocampus and amygdala)—these experiences get over-riding authority to all other processes. Burn your finger once, and you will not consciously do it again. These experiences are put at the “base” of the brain because when faced with danger, we do not have time to weigh the pros and cons and level of danger of the saber tooth tiger in front of us. We need to immediately (almost instinctively) react to survive.

Emotions are the macro processes of a mind-body organism working in holistic harmony to survive, to work collectively and to continue the species. Fear is the first amongst these psycho-physical processes. So while we all like to live fearless lives, if we did live without fear, there would much fewer of us in the world.

 

IF FEAR IS GOOD THEN WHY IS IT BAD?

fear2Freud broke mind down into the conscious and the subconscious: A small tip of a large machine showing itself to the world with a whole lot more going on beneath the surface. In Buddhism, there is only consciousness, but people are more or less attentive to what is going on inside our brains. Every motion, thought, and word that we express is not blamelessly made. There are layers and layers of routines, habits and processes going on with motivated purpose.

Unfortunately, we are often distracted from what we are doing and WHY we are doing it. We thus accept that the feelings and actions we make are not within our control. “This is just me, I can’t change me, so deal with it,” is a phrase I hear often. What they are really saying is “I am making choices I don’t understand the motivations for. I am unaware how, or unwilling, to make changes. Making changes seems impossible so I am going to embrace myself as I am and so should you.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. When a teen is getting moody and irritable their hormones and unaware mind is making choices. There is a disconnect between the sphere of what is and what that teen wishes would be, or at least the Vann diagram does not overlap in ways that are satisfactory. The responses are significant; often leading to a muddle of acceptance, defiance, coping skills they are learning as an adult, attempting coping skills that worked for them as a child, etc. All of this while they are under the influence of puberty.

One of the results is anxiety: fears real or imagined. Fears of social rejection. Fears of failure. Fears of the future. Some of these fears a processed, and some are never resolved. Most come from a place when, in our childhood, we were not competent in our ability to deal with aspects of our life: for example, a boy who never learned how to ask a girl out may carry that anxiety for the rest of his life and eventually just decide that it is a permanent aspect of his life.

As an evolution, these fears all return back to the fish and the eel story. The experience of danger is recorded in our normal memory and also in our deeper memory, triggering our sympathetic nervous system when we have this experience again and allowing us to act quickly to survive. But in the cases of issues of social awkwardness, our brains can’t distinguish between an eel attacking us in the water and the social pain of being rejected. So the body reacts in the same way to the fear of social danger as it does to real danger. There is no nuance, no distinction, from an unmindful process. And the longer that these beliefs and responses are reinforce, the more deep rooted they are in the deeper mind and become automatic truths.

But while the mind can easily understand the attack of an eel, or sabertooth tiger, how does it feel the danger of social anxiety? That comes from another evolutionary process.

 

IMAGINERYING

What makes humans really amazing creatures isn’t the opposable thumb, but our minds. We gave up the muscle density of the apes to develop our brains to solve the problems of survival. One of those tools is imagination. We can simulate reality before it happens and develop solutions. We can use object permanence and our imaginations to anticipate where the tigers are in the tall grass ready to attack.

The problem if imagination is that these simulations can also create the same responses as reality. Watch a scary movie and see how many times you get scared when you know it is just a story being told on a screen: the power of imagination makes that possible.

Our imagination creates simulated counter-factual (things that are not real) realities but with real physical results. Our body reacts to what it thinks about. So asking out that girl, we calculate the risks and benefits of that action. Then we simulate the possible results to value the probability and risks of those actions. Those of us who come up with positive results ask the girl out. Those of us with more negative outcomes have to decide to take the risk or avoid it. No matter what…those of us simulating negative outcomes have a fear based response, even if we don’t really understand or realize it.

fear5I have mentioned that emotions are psycho-physical. That means that when we feel fear, our body reacts in a certain way— but ALSO, when our body reacts a certain way we start to feel fear. The emotion cannot exist without both aspects of the mind and body working together. And when our body is reacting to our imagination with a fear response of the sympathetic nervous system, the brain must work to make sense of it. It will rationalize what is happening. The small evaluation and simulation of asking a girl out creates a fear response, the brain processes it and rationalizes that asking girls out is dangerous, that perceptual reality get recorded, we react accordingly and avoid danger. When we finally do fight through the fear to ask a girl out and if she rejects us, the reality of our imagination is manifested as a truth. Thus a cycle begins of perceptual realities informing a world view.

Now not every person reacts the same way, processes the same way, etc.; but overall, our imaginations, combined with our evolutionary way of processing and surviving in the world create truths for us that are not always best for us. We also start creating cognitive biases, were once we start creating an identity of “I” as a permanent creation, fixed in auger and never able to be changed, our imagination and rationalizations will use cognitive biases to adjusts facts to fit the perceptions. To ask out a girl and get rejected reinforces that he will never have a girl, when reality he just has not asked the right girl. The fish who avoids all coral reefs because in the fish’s mind one coral reef had an eel, they all must, will risk a fish’s ability to find food.

The solution is to continually investigate the motivations behind all emotions and actions. Accept that every movement our body does is using energy for a reason—even if we are not aware consciously (or mindfully) of what that motivation is.

 

HOW TO DETERMINE WHAT FEARS TO FOLLOW?

In Buddhism, the focus is on being mindful and has an awakened mind. The more you develop this skill, the more competent and confident you are in making decisions and navigating the world. Theoretically, a competent mindful person has no need for any fears. I think we can safely say that very few human beings achieve a Buddha or Christ-like state of being where all fears are removed. Most of us will always avoid being eaten by a shark or tiger.

What we can do is develop skills and interventions in our lives to work are removing our unnecessary fears. The ones that hold us back from living confident fulfilling lives. We can employ practices and tools to develop more useful and competent coping mechanisms to evaluating and facing fears in a way that does not distract from a fulfilling life.

Some of these mindfulness and practical tools can be developed with a counselor who works collaboratively with you to reprocess deeply held perceptions and deeply rooted processes/habits of actions and thinking. Many of the processes can be done by yourself with practices that develop mindfulness, giving, openness, etc. Often we believe that therapy or faith are the complete answer, and this just isn’t true. Whether it is a therapist, priest or a deity, they are only guides to support the evolution of you as a person. What is required is a fundamental belief that we are perceptual creatures and that our heavens and hells here on earth are based most often on how rigidly we believe the truths of the moment to be. So by developing a process of regular inquiry into the veracity of your truths allows for you to identify how much of our fear-based reality is real or anxiety.

 

Talking about fear, you may or may not have noticed some facts about fear. While an existing fear may be seeded from something in the past—it is always focused on the future: For example, the fear of a secret getting out amongst your friends.

fear3-angerAnother thing about fear is that clinically we usually distinguish between fear, anger and anxiety. Fear is normally considered to be a commonly accepted rational fear. If you are living in Africa, you could have a very acceptable fear of being attacked by a lion. Anger is a secondary emotion of fear, when all other fear responses have been unsuccessful, to become angry and establish control of your environment. While fear is the flight, anger is the fight portion of the sympathetic fear response system. Finally, anxiety is often considered the irrational fear response. While it is appropriate to be afraid of lions in Africa and adjust your life to protect yourself—it is unreasonable to think that lions will attack you in your home in Pensacola, Florida. Nevertheless, all three aspects of fear use the same mental and emotional processes and can benefit from addressing them in similar ways.

Fear responses tend to be stronger in people who are suffering from depression and with emotional disorders. Like puberty, these disorders tend to filter the way the brain processes emotional information. Depressed people can be expected to find it more challenging to remember positive experiences over negative ones. Anxious people will tend to put their attention to threatening stimuli. Knowing if you are predisposed towards depressed, anxious or avoidant thinking is very important in developing practices and tools for self-inquiry and evaluation so that they do not focus on thinking patterns the perpetuate fear responses needlessly. (http://www.loc.gov/loc/brain/emotion/Mineka.html)

Finally, fear can be addicting. Scary movies and roller coaster rides allow us safe ways for us to vent and express our fears. It is a cathartic release. But also, it is an adrenaline release. Being scared is terrifying and yet exhilarating. Even in the throes of self-wallowing—the idea of being miserable serves a purpose that we perpetuate beyond reinforced negative thinking. There is a very dysfunctional joy in the concept of “woe is I.” So even in those situations we must ask, “What are we getting out of this? Where is our benefit?” Most will individuals will initially fight this ‘radical’ concept that being miserable is a self-motivated choice, but it is. We have created a life mechanism where we have chosen this response as appropriate for best resolution. We ‘get’ something out of being miserable.

Our evolutionary being is mental and physical. Our thinking is not just in our heads but in our existence. Everything we do is purposeful, even if we are not mindful of it. Memories and actions that are most important to us become deeper and deeper rooted responses. Our ‘truths’ of the world are perceptual choices. There are practices and tools we can use to loosen our dysfunctional thinking and living and move from fear-based choices to mindful-based confident living.

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Categories: Buddhism, faith, Meditation, mental health, Psychology, Therapy

Author:Sumitta

Born Joshua Hudson, Reverend Sumitta (his ordained name) finished a twenty-year career as a military photo-journalist, and became a Licensed Social Worker with continuing studies in Mental Health, Healthcare Advocate, and Buddhist Minister. Currently, he works as the Director of Psychological Health and Primary Prevention of Violence for the U.S. Air Force. Previously, he served as the healthcare patient advocate for the Veterans Healthcare Administration, and is a License Clinical Social Worker, with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, public speaker, trainer and personal/family advisor. His dharma name "Sumitta," which translates to "Good Friend" in Pali.

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  1. ReWrite Your Stories and Be Happy | Applied Buddhism - June 10, 2014

    […] think it should, we are usually very present. Very rarely are we bored, are we anxious, do we have anxiety. Think about the times when you have been on a fun carnival ride, watching a movie, enjoying dinner […]

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