(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
This week’s journal topic: Fear
You’ve undoubtedly received all kinds of contradictory information about fear. As a child, nauseous with nerves before stepping onstage in the school play, you probably heard your parents or teacher tell you that “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself” (FDR, former American president).
- If you’re a child of the 80’s or 90’s, you might remember the brand No Fear, whose edgy (at the time) T-shirts mocked fear.
- Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real
These quotes tell us that fear is some kind of illusion; moreover, it’s an illusion that loses its power when we laugh at it and clearly see the illusion. Fear is like a rubber snake dropped into your lap. It’s impossible not to react, but when you see that it’s rubber, it’s funny.
What is fear?
Fear is really made up of two aspects: physiological and emotional. In an environment in which our bodies perceive fear, the body reacts with a sweating, increased heart rate, and heightened alertness thanks to adrenaline. Basically, you see, smell, hear, or sense something that the body perceives as a threat and it automatically reacts – before the brain even becomes conscious of the threat. This is physiological fear – the unconscious “fight or flight” response.
If you’re walking down an alley at night and hear footsteps and whispers behind you, your body’s fear response tenses your muscles in preparation to run.
The emotional fear response is a little more complicated. In the emotional fear response, we become aware of our fear, but only after the brain checks in with the body’s physiological state and registers the raised heart rate, sweating, and tense muscles. First, the body reacts with fear to something in the environment. Then, the brain becomes conscious of that reaction, and out of that consciousness comes a thought: I’m scared!
Is fear an illusion?
The answer depends on how we interpret the question. If you’re asking, “Is the emotion of fear an illusion?”, the answer is something like a yes. An emotion can feel unbearable, but it won’t harm or kill you any more than an imaginary gun. So in that way, the emotion is an illusory threat. You can live in perpetual fear, but you’ll survive.
If you’re asking, “Are the causes of fear illusory?” then the answer is sometimes. Fear developed as a survival mechanism to protect us from approaching real threats in our environment. But our fears are not always justified; therefore, it’s important to become conscious of them in order to sort out the harmful from the harmless. Think about the variety of snakes in the world. Although we fear all snakes we encounter, only some are deadly poisonous and only some should be feared.
If a snake drops into your lap, you’ll rightfully and instinctively react: the body responds instantly. However, as soon as the physical reaction becomes conscious, it becomes your responsibility to evaluate the snake and register it as either threatening or innocuous by using your best judgment. If you let your brain be pushed around by the physiological fear response, you’ll waste effort running from rubber snakes or laughing at a rattler!
- Write about your scariest experience in detail.
- How does fear feel like in your body compared with other emotions such as excitement or elation?
- Under what circumstances is fear fun? (Describe the who, what, when, where, why.)
- Honestly list 5 things you fear the most in life (e.g. objects, people, situations, futures; large or small).
- Which of your fears are illusory and which are evidence of real threats?
- Is fear ever useful and how? Or is fear never useful?
- What would daily life look like if you never felt fear? What are the possible positive and negative outcomes? (At least one person, known as Patient S.M., is documented as not having any fear.)
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Try to do only one question every morning, leaving space to add thoughts that might come up later during the day. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
If you liked this week’s post, please like or comment! I appreciate the feedback and use it to choose future topics. If you want to see more posts like this one, let me know!