Fear’s Everywhere: How Are You Managing It?

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

Last week was powerful.  It felt like fear was everywhere.
Living in California, I was sensitive to the non-stop news of the tragic events (still unfolding) in Japan. Empathy, compassion and concern were the primary emotions that I experienced as I learned the details of the unprecedented disaster.
As the news turned to the dangerous situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, I started to pay closer attention to the contradictory reports on the possibilities of radiation leakage.  Would/could radiation leaked from the plant travel 5,500 miles to the U.S. West Coast? What were the implications? How safe is the San Onofre nuclear plant only 26 short miles away from where we live?
As the thoughts continued, I felt the fear creeping in.

Next I learned that the entire U.S. supply of potassium iodide was nearly depleted – with people buying it not only on the West Coast, but all over the country. I innocently asked the vitamin salesperson at my local Whole Foods if they had any kelp in stock (kelp is thought to have similar effects as potassium iodide).  She showed me the empty shelves and asked if I wanted to get on the long waiting list when supplies are re-stocked – but she warned – “everyone’s sold out.”
Fear’s everywhere.  Under the most “normal” of circumstances, many of us are still under its grip.  There always seems to be something to be afraid of, whether it’s a short-term “crisis” or the looming uncertainties of the future.  (In a recent poll of people aged 44 – 75, 61% said they feared running out of money more than they feared dying)

Fear’s Mighty Contagious – Internally and Externally

Emotional contagion is real and its effects can be wide-spread.  Fear contagion is dangerous – to our own well-being – and to those around us.

In her post, 4 Ways to Manage Fear, author Jennifer Lauck talks about her recent meeting with a friend, “We sit at a fantastic French café. We are together to enjoy a good meal, a lovely day and each other. As we sit down, I tell her I am scared about what has happened in Japan.  She says, “I’m scared too.” We then spent a good share of our limited time deep in talk about how afraid we are, and why. In our conversation, we breed more fear.  I can feel it in my stomach, this twist of tension that makes me dizzy.  The math is simple. One fear plus another fear equals two fears. When we part, my friend and I now carry twice the fear we had before we met. If we keep up this pattern, we are going to infect the next person we meet with two fears, and if that person adds their fear to our fear, you get fear plus fear plus fear.”

As I write this, I’m noticing that the Japanese crisis is no longer getting top billing in the headlines. Fear sells, and the (thankfully) slightly better news about radiation leakage has knocked it out of the headlines.  But given the media penchant for shock and awe, fear will be back in another story, another statistic and another warning.

Fear – Friend or Foe?

We’re brilliantly hard-wired to fear as a survival mechanism.  Our ancient ancestors faced with real predators and aggressors, came equipped with a powerful alarm system called the fight or flight response.  To work, the system has to constantly “be on.”  That’s great if real danger is imminent. It wasn’t meant to be activated if a co-worker got the promotion we wanted or we get cut off in traffic and are late for a meeting.

Here’s why.  The fight or flight syndrome, activated by real or perceived threats,  triggers (instantly) nerve and hormone signals that prompt your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and boosts your energy supply. Cortisol, considered the primary stress hormone, increases sugar in the blood and enhances how your brain uses glucose, robbed from their normal job of repairing your tissues. It alters your immune system and suppresses the reproductive system.

Once this system is turned on, our ability to think clearly and rationally is greatly diminished. The amygdala (emotional seat of the brain) overtakes the neocortex (“reasoning” part of the brain). Energy is drawn into the emotional response and working memory decreases.  Most estimates are that the adrenaline maximized for the “emergency” will take about 18 to 20 minutes to decline while other hormones will take 3-4 hours to normalize.

In other words – this is a system you only want turned ON in real emergencies!

Recent research shows that the fight or flight response can be turned on by many situations.  Given our emotional history, over time we can hard-wire many stimuli to this response. Even simple distractions, changes and routine frustrations can activate the system.  In fact, there are many people walking around in chronic pre-triggered states, where the slightest stimulus can amp up the system into a full-blown emotional hi-jacking.  Many people have adjusted to thinking of this as their “normal” state.

While fear is a biologically protective emotion, necessary for survival, it has morphed into pathological conditions of anxiety, phobias and post traumatic stress disorder in modern life.

We aren’t born with many fears and (recent research revealed that two common fears – snakes and spiders may be learned)  our common fears are nearly all learned. We’re conditioned by the fears of our earliest caregivers and cultural influences.  Early fears become encoded and consolidated by memories hard-wiring our fears and leaving them “prey” to stimuli that recall past experiences.

Managing Fear – Out-Smarting the Predator

“Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator.

Robert Sussman, Co-author, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution

So who’s the predator in 2011? Dangers from radiation leakage are REAL. We are wise to pay attention to the real and possible dangers around us in a calm, balanced and rational way.   Most people need better skills to detect and deal with fear in their lives. Fear is insidious and drives much of what we avoid and what we choose.  Too many people accept these fears as inevitable – a sign of the times.  But unless we manage fear to our advantage – its effects will sap our energies, deteriorate our health, corrode our spirits and lead us to poor decisions.


  1. Your Breath is Your Anchor Most people have lost touch with their breath.  They hunch their shoulders, hold their breath and breathe shallowly.  To keep your neocortex engaged, you must oxygenate your brain and body.   The way you breathe ENABLES certain emotions (like fear) and disables others (like calmness).
  2. Relax Your Body – Unless you learn to get in touch with your body (and many people are living from the head – up) you will have a tough time disabling fear, anger and other “triggered” emotions.  Most body posture is habituated, often by the fear response.  Unless you consciously begin to send a different signal to the tight, tense parts of your body, you will continue to hold stress.
  3. Expand Your Emotional Literacy– Many people have a tiny vocabulary to describe and understand their emotions.  They say they are terrified when they are only worried. They say they are worried when concern might be a more appropriate response.  This is not simply a matter of semantics. Each emotion carries a unique “biological signature” in your body. Get to know it. The more you expand your emotional repertoire, the more control you have over your feelings.
  4. Check Your Beliefs Around Fear – Beliefs drive emotions.  If you believe that fear is inevitable, it will be. If you believe that fear is wimpy, you’ll outwardly deny fear, but denial is not an option for the body – it will register fear regardless of your attempts at repression.  We’re taught and modeled at an early age what emotions are OK and which are not OK.  Most adults are still living with their inherited beliefs.
  5. Think About How You Think – To work with your fears, you’ll have to get a better understanding of how you trigger them. Yes, outside fight or flight triggers, like tsunamis are real, but most fear triggering is done by your thinking.  Your thoughts are triggering your emotions all day long. Getting a handle on the events and thoughts that trigger you is critical to making lasting change.

The good news – we now know that the brain is “plastic,” and has a brilliant capacity to rewire itself. How?  Through the retraining of our thinking which in turn rewires our neocortex.   Turns out the great mitigator of your experience is your thinking.   Fear doesn’t own you.
Use it wisely.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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