Fear is useful for the protection of the physical body but not when it becomes the dominant driver of human behaviour. Unless we live in a war-torn country, are exposed to a natural disaster, or subjected to violence, our amygdala response is not needed to ensure our safety. If we are lucky enough to live under relatively safe environmental conditions, our amygdala is generally not triggered by real danger, but rather by the fear that somehow I am under attack. This happens when something is judged as an attack because of overlaying what has been emotionally painful in the past onto what is happening in the present. This process of projecting negative images of the past over the present results in a skewed assessment of the situation, panic, and disproportional emotional responses.
No one enjoys panic, because panic means loss of control. In an attempt to avoid the unpleasant experiences of being overwhelmed by panic, we developed fears that serve no other purpose than alerting us ahead of time of anything that could potentially result in loss of control. This intricate system of tripwires is now triggered at the slightest hint of threat. For some people, this tripwire alarm system develops a life of its own, and the alarm system virtually self-replicates. Before they know what’s happening, they are trapped in an internal prison of alarm systems, each as impenetrable as the hedge of thorns around Sleeping Beauty. Life itself has turned into the enemy because danger and attack are suspected at every turn.
When we are afraid, we literally cannot think straight because those areas in our brain dedicated to higher functions are deprived of oxygen. Living in fear physiologically impedes our ability to learn and develop. The neuroscientist Gerald Hüther (2012) describes the effect of fear in a beautiful article on his website as follows:
‘fear triggers a chain reaction in the brain that impairs our ability to learn new things, destabilizes what we have already learned, and pushes us to regress to old and rather rudimentary behavioural strategies.’
Fear keeps us chained to a set of responses that were only meant to resolve an immediate threat to our physiological integrity, not as a long-term solution for issues that we create through our thinking!
When it comes to fear, we are mainly dealing with F.E.A.R.: False Expectations Appearing Real. Many things we shield ourselves from are highly unlikely to happen — and even if there is the possibility that they might, the price we pay for listening to our fear is the equivalent of burying ourselves alive. If you are afraid of getting hit by a falling flowerpot and you never leave the house, you might actually prevent getting hit by a falling flowerpot, but you also effectively prevent yourself from living life period. If you don’t let anyone close to you for the fear of being hurt, you condemn yourself to a life of isolation. To boot, we are driven not only by avoiding the thing we are afraid of, but by the associated fear that if this thing happens (whatever we happen to be afraid of), we will not able to deal with it.
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