Fear, I believe, is our most predominant emotion as it’s driven from our survival instinct. We are navigated through life by our threat detection mechanism; our nervous system, our primeval brain, our mammalian nature; checking experience (or future experience) out as either physically and emotionally safe, not safe or potentially not safe. Our need for safety drives our personality and behaviour towards being self-protective; dominating our natural capacity to respond from an open place of calm and compassion towards others (and self).
Fear is a fundamental disallowing of ourselves to be available for connection or totally open to the present moment.
Fear is live in our system everyday, ranging from discomfort to anxiety to panic attacks, phobia, paralysis; from unease to tremor to terror. Our unconscious emotional body creates our fear based somatic patterns, which means we tend towards over-reactivity, get easily triggered and overly anxious. As a result many aspects of our personality are protective strategies; defensive, managing, avoidant, controlling, squashing, distracting, numbing, alert; parts of our system that work to keep us safe and manage our fears. These were developed at a early age in response to our experiences. Our physiological system denotes our triggered reaction to the unsafe environment. Our ‘personality’ system aims to control: manage or mitigate experience.
Do you know what your instinctive reaction is when you are triggered? How your body tends to react and you behave? Are you prone to pulling away, pushing back, freezing to the spot? It’s not something you chose, it’s automatic; unconscious beliefs creating our body movement and shape; our history revealing our fears in the present, in our reactive emotional body and our behaviour. This somatic pattern, or conditioned tendency, is in the way that we organise or hold ourself, in how we walk through the world and the manner in which we meet it. The protection that informs our being; shoulders up, armoured heart, folding in, tense jaw: all steeling, holding in, up, keeping distant, guarding. Tension is needed in the reactive prepared body but it also grip-locks against flexibility.
We are defended beings.
We walk upright with our most vulnerable soft organs exposed, so no wonder we feel the need to be protective and defended physically and psychologically towards the world. We don’t want someone prodding us in the belly, even playfully; we will react. And it’s in our belly, our core centre, within the pelvis, that we experience both agency and fear. If we are stuck, we can’t move forward. When we fold our legs and our arms and tuck ourselves in away from the risky, we enfold ourselves inwards towards safety whilst excluding potential. We may chose to sit where we can scan a room, look out or leave. The approaching person who we don’t like talking to, is a threat to our comfort and so we stiffen and bristle against. The approaching person who may meet our needs for belonging or connection is willingly invited in; we extend and open the hand. Where we are open and soft we can suddenly snap close. Whilst in our full inviting width we can become narrow in an instant through the turn away of the gaze, the head, the back, the withdrawing of warmth, the closing of the heart. We’ve all felt this, in ourselves, in others. We sense and interpret this all the time: but we may not be reading fear because this energy is around protection. When in our distress response we are “smallifying” our breath, our muscles and our awareness (Paul Linden), contracting ourselves inwards and reducing our ease.
We are strangely powerful in both love or fear, in affecting our world.
Bessel Van Kolk describes the way the brain changes in Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD). The autonomic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze/fold responses) goes into activation, so primes for threat. The perception of threat widens though this hyper vigilance, so more things are likely to have the potential to become threatening, creating a difficulty in focus (presence and engagement) and creates trouble in distinguishing between what is relevant and dismissible (loading false significance). The internal experience of other emotions and responses becomes dampened. Traumatic experience is common and the experience different for everyone. Trauma doesn’t mean we’ve had to experience some horrendous event, it means something has happened that made us feel so unsafe we’ve had difficulty processing it: it may have been too much, too fast or too soon for us to take in and digest. The experience and the energy around it is still stuck, and natural flow becomes blocked in our system. Our autonomic nervous system may be more primed to threat if we have experienced trauma or are experiencing high degrees of stress and anxiety, diminishing our trust, generosity and so capacity to relate and feel others. Contracting inwards around a wound is likely, rather than expanding out towards others.
We know what it feels like to operate from a place of excess caution after we have been damaged in some way, where we have trouble trusting our judgement. This helps us understand how our neurology and biology work to heighten our perception of the other, the world ‘as a scary place’. Our unconscious belief responses to situations if we don’t feel safe or ok (balanced and emotionally regulated), creates our felt experience. The belief “I am unsafe and I must do something” creates an energy of overdrive; leading to feeling anxiety or overwhelm, fight or flight (the state of hyper-arousal). The “I am unsafe and I can’t do anything about it” creates and energetic shut down, leading to feeling depleted and stuckness; freeze (hypo-arousal).
Our ‘window of tolerance’ for every day duress, as we become increasing stretched and tight, means we are no longer experiencing life with emotional ebb and flow but get stuck too up in overdrive, or too down in shutdown; eventually so out of balance that we can become burnt out, broken down. Before this happens there will have been many physiological warning signs in our system that our well-being/equilibrium is under threat, that we are becoming increasing reactive and fearful. When we ignore the nervous system, the body ultimately enforces collapse for our own safety.
A multitude of seemingly small attachment wounds, experienced in early sometimes neglectful caregiving relationships can create developmental trauma; fears around relational and emotional safety. A lack of a felt sense of love can feel like a threat of rejection and abandonment and as a survival fear of death to a child, and so a potential “I’ll die if you leave me” adult story. Fear that we do not have enough to survive can become an internalised fear that it is of our doing and so a belief that we are not enough. Our body contracting us through shame, a small, bowed shape created by a survival system in its mechanisms, that does not want us to experience that threat to safety again and so hides our pain in our own diminished body, shrinking us in. Many of us are secretly afraid that there is something wrong with us, or not good enough, linking a fear of inadequacy to fear of judgement and shame about who we feel we are. There are parts of ourselves that we struggle to accept because we are afraid of them and so shut down. So a fear of vulnerability may become expressed as defensive anger or anger be suppressed because there’s a fear that if it’s expressed, we will be rejected.
Threat has evolved from fear of death and savagery to fear that nobody likes our latest Facebook post. Social fears are as threatening to our emotional ‘survival’ as the approaching wild beasty is as dangerous to our physical survival. When we think about public speaking, our system can be triggered around our fear of audience perception as if we will be standing on a chair in our pants, facing a room of hungry lions. Our sympathetic nervous system knows when we are scared, whatever the stimulus, and throws us into alert (a part of the brain, the limbic system, which processes our sensory stimuli stress hormones, perceptive processing and memory searching). The raised heart beat, the pitching stomach, the sweaty palms, the shortness of breath. The avoidance, running away, sudden departure, withdrawal (flight). The glazing over of the eyes, cloudy brain, incapacity to concentrate, shutting down, numbness and disassociation (freeze) The over-submissive, compliance or collapse, feint or folding in (feigning of death). The confrontational aggression, physically and verbally hitting out and attacking (fight). Unconscious reactive patterns when we feel threatened and so scared.
Our rational frontal cortex, the part of our brain most recently evolved and concerned with solution, can calculate and control risk consciously and tell us we know there’s nothing to be scared of, but our limbic system will still be reacting based on sensory information, whilst we try and think it through. It’s why so many people find decision making difficult when their system is under stress. Add to this that the brain remembers everything, every bad experience and memory is stored and filed and the risk of any potential repeat is constantly scanned for. So if we’ve been bitten by a dog we may be scared of a Yorkshire terrier. If we had an angry parent, someone raising their voice at us may feel intolerable and we may run away or try and placate them, whatever coping strategy we learnt when we little. If we were told off for crying, we may have become afraid to cry out in pain and may stifle our natural tears and become rigid and silent instead. We may avoid dating, even though we are lonely because the idea of either falling in love (getting what we need) or being rejected (revisiting an old wound) is terrifying.
Where we are afraid to feel what is in our body, we may seek to deliberately escape; the link between trauma and addiction (Gabor Mate): addictions being one of our available numbing protective strategies to take care/cope with our pain. The mind fears overwhelm by pain and intensity, yet if we disconnect from our body we can become stuck in our minds, in our thinking about fear, or a fretful or distracted mind with a blank body where if we don’t feel fear we may also not feel love. Many spiritual teachings and particularly mindfulness, describe developing our capacity to be present with our emotional experience as reducing suffering, and so fear. Experiencing our feelings and internal sensations can be less scary than the thoughts about them.
So fear is both felt and in the body and perceived through thought; the imaginary world of the fearful. What is held in the body links to memories, thoughts (words and images), these in turn will create emotions and sensations (energy) in the body. There is much written about how our thinking creates our own fear as we interpret and imagine. How experience might feel real but isn’t actually true. As Kierkegaard said “the things we fear the most have already happened to us”, pointing to the anticipatory thoughts that create unfounded fear in our life (anxiety) and the catastrophic thinking that tends towards a shrinking world defined by own need for a comfort zone. We have already survived much of what we fear. And much of what we fear doesn’t materialise. As Mark Twain said “some of the worst things in my life never even happened”.
That same ‘scary’ world helps to reduce our fear. Where we can separate from our thoughts, we can create a space of awareness of ourselves as both mind and body and give the body, the felt emotions, attention so that they can settle and dissipate. We can soothe and slow our own nervous system through attending to our fear and our reactivity. Social connections and others, where we experience emotional safety, trust and resonance in relationship, can also soothe our nervous system. Being able to listen to our body, be aware of what we are experiencing, feeling, sensing allows us to be with fear more acutely than any thinking, because that’s where we can manage reactivity. We can manage the fear of the body from within the body through the breath, slowness and stillness (prompting the parasympathetic nervous system into rest mode). Nature has one of the most powerful affects on our physical and emotional wellbeing. Where our body can drop and soften, where we can lay on our back with our arms open. Free of tension, constriction and in that moment experience connection beyond ourselves, beyond our fears.
We all carry the scars of our experiences and so are scared of the experiences we haven’t had yet. We are afraid of hurt. We are afraid of failure. We are all scared of ourselves, what we did and might be capable of and by our doubt “I can’t do this.” And that means we might quite like to control, keep order and avoid risk and uncertainty in favour of feeling safe, secure, obtaining a sense of belonging and approval: “I need to know”, “I need to know where I belong”, ‘I need to know I matter”.
Most of life isn’t in our control. We both revel in the mystery of that and fear it. I believe the opportunity is to recognise and appreciate safety when we know it, as the dark soil where we can burrow and rest, but also the ground that feeds the roots to reach out and grow from. Ultimately, we can develop this capacity within ourselves.
Every day is an act of courage, of being with discomfort, of living in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous future. So we are negotiating a scary world. We are all courageous in being open to life and the most courageous of us all, in being open to ourselves.
“Most of us feel brave and afraid at the exact same time. We feel vulnerable. Sometimes all day long.” Brene Brown.