Some things you need to know about fear

Fear is a primary motivation for a lot of our behaviors.

Sometimes that’s good. Fear is a functional response, and it serves a purpose.

The problem is that fear – this important, built-in alert system— has no off setting. That’s good, because you can’t always predict danger, and you need your alert system to be on when threats arise unexpectedly. (After all, if you know a threat is coming, it’s not nearly as threatening.)

Since fear is always working, however, it will alert us to any threat we might encounter. Fear might send a signal –  to, say, the embarrassment of an awkward conversation with a stranger – which is just as strong as the signal it sends for life-threatening danger.

There are a lot of reasons we might feel fear, even intense fear, about normal, everyday things.

Fear is designed to work fast and to get us to make a fast decision (fight or flight). We tend to react quickly, often illogically, when fear sends a strong signal.

We need to get better at figuring out when fear is serving a legitimate purpose (saving! us! from! danger!) and when fear is being overdramatic (saving! us! from! small! talk!).

I mean, I hate small talk, too, but it’s just not the same threat level as falling off a cliff, or encountering a creepy dude in a dark alley, or having to use a public restroom.

Hierarchies and reaction provocation

Fear has three objectives to reach:

  • The first is survival.
  • The second is stability.
  • The third is comfort.

In survival situation, fear shines. We need it, we depend on it, and we wouldn’t survive as long without it.

Many of us, however, are not in a continual fight to survive.

Since the fear system is always on, it needs something else to do. Enter the second and third objectives: stability and comfort.

This is how the fear system works, most of the time:

  • If survival is ensured, pursue stability.
  • If stability is ensured, pursue comfort.

There’s a clear hierarchy in this mode of operation: first survival, then stability, then comfort.

If survival is achieved, then the fear system will busy itself scanning for threats to stability.

If stability is achieved (or perceived to be achieved), then the fear system will busy itself scanning for threats to comfort.
(Stability, by the way, doesn’t always mean good, or healthy. It usually just means predictable.)

The fear system is interested in alerting us to threats. Whether the threat affects our survival, our stability, or our comfort isn’t as important to fear as sending the signal and getting us to respond.

You can see how, if you’re fairly sure of your survival, and if your life is fairly stable, fear might create a strong signal when something threatens your comfort (OH NO, NOT SNOW, OMG) in order to provoke a corresponding reaction.

Normalization and acceptance

There’s another way the fear system works, sometimes:

  • If survival cannot be ensured, try to get some stability.
  • If stability cannot be ensured, at least try to get some comfort.

That second mode of operation is what kicks into gear when someone is living in a dangerous or unstable environment. It’s called desensitization.

Desensitization is the process of training your fear system to see something as “normal,” or accepted as nonthreatening, instead of as dangerous.

That’s good when you’re dealing with, say, a phobia. (Though desensitization techniques are not always effective, and are not, perhaps, the wisest choice for trauma treatment.)

Desensitization is not great when it results in your fear system accepting real danger, violence, or abuse as normal.

This normalization – of violence, war, danger, neglect, deprivation, abuse – can lead to increased violent behavior, atrocities and war crimes, indifference and apathy to violent conditions, acceptance of abuse later in life, lack of empathy or concern, psychic numbing, which can lead abuse victims to stay with their abuser, and reluctance to seek help or retribution.

Fear itself, we must remember, is not bad or good; it’s just a signaling system.

The signaling system is affected by our environment and trained by our behaviors. It can learn to over-react or under-react.

The fear system is not set, static, unchangeable. It’s a function of the brain, making it adjustable and responsive.

That’s great news, really.
While it’s unfortunate that our fear system can be influenced negatively, it’s great that we can learn how to influence it positively.

We can’t get rid of fear entirely.

But really, we wouldn’t want to. We can learn how to filter the fear signals we receive, and make better decisions about how we respond to fear.