Fear’s a Common Response in Today’s World ~ What We Do With It Matters

“Fear does not predict the future: it only tells you that you are afraid. The trick is to recognize the emotion when it emerges, accept it, discover its source and decide what to do with it.”      Jay Uhler, Organizational Psychologist

Needless to say, fear is a common emotion in these times. This is a natural reaction, especially in light of the complexity of geopolitical and environmental crises that seem uncontrollable. Because a sense of helplessness engenders more fear, it is critical to understand what frightens us – and why.    The longer we allow ourselves to stay mired in fear, the more we cloud our perceptions and make choices driven by our anxieties.
The challenges of today’s world call for a serious elevation of our emotional intelligence if we are to respond rationally, cognizant of what we feel, yet not driven by it.   More than ever – emotional intelligence feels like an essential survival skill. 
It’s time for educators, employers, public officials and individuals to understand that we must develop far greater social and emotional intelligence within all of our social systems, if we are to make informed and enlightened decisions. This is skill is critical if we are to develop the kind of resiliency necessary to live in volatile times.It’s the 21st century and many people in positions of leadership are still asking whether understanding the human mind is a “soft skill.”  We’re still “training” people what to think, rather than how to think. Having a fundamental understanding of the inter-dynamics of brain, mind, emotions and the body is still rare.

As a culture we still know little about psychological trauma and its personal and social implications. Even though terms like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are loosely used in popular culture, most people still associate it with the aftermath of events like war. Recent studies show that trauma is far more widespread throughout most cultures than was previously understood and have multiplier effects worldwide.

Fear Dominates
While most of us cannot imagine living in cultures where terror and fear are constants, many of us do live with the undercurrents of fear long woven into our emotional “heritage.”  Fear’s everywhere; if not an external experience, certainly an internal one. We’ve learned the norms of fear since childhood – parents, school, social acceptance, economics, the boss, the workplace and the state of the world, regardless of our generations. As cultures are evolving to reject fear as a tool of authority, control and motivation, we’re beginning to understand just how embedded and pervasive fear can be.  Fear is, after all, the glue which keeps us frozen in place, emotionally and socially.  Fear thwarts progress, constantly.   Even as we move forward and progress prevails, we can drag a large amount of our fear-based emotional scars along with us.

Contrary to common beliefs, we aren’t born with many fears.  Research shows that even our two common fears – snakes and spiders – may be learned. We’re often conditioned by the fears of our earliest caregivers and cultural influences. Early fears can then become encoded and consolidated by hard-wired memories left vulnerable to stimuli that recall painful past experiences.
We live in cultures where fear is deliberately used by advertisers, public relations and politicians (among others) to obscure facts and control choice. The reason fear appeals are used in advertising is simple, says Todd Van Slyke, advertising instructor at The Illinois Institute of Art, just as sex sells, fear sells too.“Fear appeals strike a nerve with people who have doubts about things or do not know about things,” he explains. “They play on our inherent fears of the unknown or that something is going to kill us. This is why scare tactics are stunningly effective.

It’s widely known that fear (brilliantly) operates as a hard-wired survival mechanism. While fear is a biologically protective emotion, it has morphed into chronic and pathological conditions of anxiety, phobias and PTSD in modern life.  While the fear-activated flight or fight alarm system is a useful survival tool, when the “switch” is chronically left on, triggered by real or perceived threats, it can cause lasting damage. Being in chronic “survival mode” not only results in negatively altering physiology, but shuts down the “reasoning” part of the brain in service of the threat. And because we now have more understanding of emotional contagion, we know emotions can go viral – in immediate groups and beyond.

It’s in the Body
It’s time to start a vigorous discussion about the role trauma plays in modern cultures. The popular impression that trauma is limited to events, like war and physical abuse, has been challenged by new research. International trauma expert Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma writes, “Trauma is a pervasive condition of modern life.  Most of us have been traumatized, not just soldiers or victims of abuse or attack. Both the sources and consequences of trauma are wide-ranging and often hidden from our awareness. These include natural disasters, exposure to violence, accidents, falls, serious illnesses, sudden loss, surgical and other medical procedures, difficult births and even high levels of stress during gestation.”

Levine explains that when other animals are under threat, they instinctually go into a whole repertoire of automatic responses, caused by primitive structures within the nervous system. An animal’s reflexive response immediately begins to orient it to the real danger.  If the animal cannot successfully fight or flee, it may go into a more passive defense mode – freezing. It’s this phase of “immobility” that Levine’s work of the past 25 years has identified as the most “important factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma.”
One major difference between the human and animal responses of the “freeze state” is that humans tend not to dissipate this energy, possibly due to acculturated social or mental inhibitions, resulting in storage of arousal based energies. Consequently, the bodily memory of fear is trapped within the nervous system.

“The brain is formed by feedback from the environment. It’s a profoundly relational part of our body.”  Bessel van der Kolk, author The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and the Body in the Healing of Trauma

Although the brain contains multiple (sensory) memories, fear activates a different system: our body’s emergency control center – the amygdala. Interestingly, it’s also the seat of certain pleasurable memories associated with food, sex, or recreational drug use. When a memory is particularly striking and unexpected, it activates this emotional memory system.
Everyone has had the experience of being taken right back to certain emotional memories based on sensory cues. A touch, smell, sound or even a face can trigger powerful old memories.
With a fearful experience, our survival systems kick into action, and we can achieve what’s known as a single trial memory.  You don’t need to encounter the sabre tooth tiger more than once to learn fear.  What cues trigger and activate memories, especially painful ones, is deeply idiosyncratic and often unconscious.
Making the association between a neutral stimulus and a frightening event is a learning process.  However, unlike some other types of learning, lasting fear memories can be acquired quickly, often after a single experience, and can last a lifetime. While this process is true in all fear-based memories, the fear of violence can reactivate our immobility and result in a vicious cycle that adds to earlier trauma.

Liberating these Powerful Forces
Too many of us choose to stay in the grip of fear.  Some of us are not even aware that it’s fear that’s driving our beliefs, opinions and choices. We persist in a belief that fear’s an inevitable factor of life; or we don’t know how to release the fears that control us. We can’t banish fear from our human experience. It is, after all, an inescapable part of our human journey. Fear, like other challenging emotions, is not our enemy. Its essence is rooted in our survival.  But as we are beginning to understand from the science of emotions and trauma, we cannot avoid or deny the presence of fear. It lives in the body and shapes our thinking and behavior. The way out – is in – and through.

Peter Levine points us that our mammalian instincts go well beyond the fight, flee or freeze responses. Our senses are connected to an understanding that “We are We.” Without a clear connection, to our instincts and feelings, we cannot feel our connection to this earth, a family or anything else. Disconnection from our felt sense of belonging leaves our rational minds to create fantasies based on competition and distrust – reinforcing fear and past trauma.

Behind every fear is a deep and universal human need – for safety, for belonging, for love. Every time we choose to explore the source of our fears, we tap the evolutionary impulse for integration.
We’re learning that many old wounds can heal. We don’t have to remain victims of fear and circumstance. We have the capacity to heal – we have the ability to be whole.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Graphic credit: Ann Koplow

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