How often does fear stop you from pushing beyond your comfort zone? Sometimes age limits people from facing what is behind underneath their fear, preventing learning and growth. As a normal, healthy, human emotion fear does not need to be something to be ashamed of. Author and conscious communications expert Katie Hendricks, Ph.D. would say it’s actually an opportunity to befriend your fear.
One easy way to determine whether you are in a low grade of fear is to check your belly breathing. If it’s shallow and high up into your chest, with stomach muscles squeezed tight, it’s very likely that you’re experiencing fear.
This unconscious emotion is often running in the background preventing people from being vulnerable and expressing in ways that build authentic connection. This limits you from moving forward with big ideas, taking risks, or making life changes to improve your workalike balance. Fear of what others might think is the very thing that stops people from being themselves.
The Function of Fear
Fear, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite, in fact. Fear plays a primal and essential role both in the history of the human species and in the life of every human. Fear is an evolutionary response to a perceived threat. Fear is the survival mechanism that has allowed our species to endure and prosper for millennia. It is the instinct that protects and preserves the individual from infancy to old age.
There is a flip side, though, an aspect to fear that undermines rather than serves our interest. In the presence of fear, there can be no logical thought. There is only reflexive reaction, driven by the most ancient and primitive parts of our brain, principally the amygdala, which lies at the heart of the limbic system, the seat of memory and emotion in humans.
Across the centuries, our amygdalas have served us well in times of real danger, flooding the body with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. We become physiologically primed for whatever is required to survive. This may trigger the fight or flight response, or it may lead us to faint or freeze, a physiological response designed to enable prey animals to evade the interest of hungry predators.
These four flavors of fear are all well and good when you’re a primitive human trying not to get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger or a contemporary one trying to evade the tiger’s distant descendant. However, these fear responses aren’t at all beneficial when you’re a rational human being trying to build and maintain strong, healthy relationships with other rational human beings.
Hello, Fear; Goodbye, Reason
The reason that uncontrolled fear is so destructive to relationships is that when the amygdala is activated, the frontal lobes, which are responsible for rational thought and deliberative decision-making, shut down. After all, you’re never going to sit down with the tiger and have a logical discussion about why he wants to eat you, or what deep-seated trauma he experienced as a cub that might be responsible for his aggressive inclinations today. When you’re facing a real, physical danger, you want your muscles, not your mind, to work.
Fortunately, legitimate physical threats are relatively rare in the daily lives of most people. What is not rare, though, are the stressors, pressures, and anxieties that are part and parcel of every life, no matter how well-adjusted and highly functioning you may be.
Though we can’t always change our circumstances, we can change our response to them. One of the most important ways to begin is to understand how life’s stresses may be activating our primal fear responses, even when we don’t realize it. This primitive fear response may also be gradually destroying our relationships.
For example, it is much more likely that the threats you are going to experience in your daily life are not to your physical body, but to your ego. In the course of ordinary modern life, you are probably more likely to encounter experiences that cause you psychological or emotional pain than bodily harm, experiences that threaten to undermine your sense of self, of your future, of your place in the world.
Your protective amygdala cannot differentiate between physical, psychological, or emotional threats. All that it understands is that it senses some kind of danger, some threat of pain or self-destruction, whether real or imagined, tangible or intangible. Like a hyperactive guard dog, barking at every noise or every shadow that moves, the primitive brain and the responding body go on the alert, while the rational forebrain goes into metaphorical lockdown.
Thus, the fear of an upcoming performance evaluation at work can act on the brain very much like the sense of a predator nearby. The memory of your first love’s infidelity can leave you hypervigilant and pathologically controlling of your current spouse. In other words, the threat of pain, no matter how remote, has triggered the limbic system and your brain has been hijacked by the amygdala (1, 2, 3, 11).
When the amygdala takes over, you are literally endeavoring to function with cognitive impairment. The decreased functioning of the frontal lobes, combined with the hyperactivity of the amygdala and the limbic system means that you will be unable to analyze events and circumstances comprehensively and objectively. You will be hypersensitive to evidence, real or imagined, that affirms and sustains the fear response. At the same time, you will be unable to recognize, process, or assess the evidence that undermines your fear response (4, 12).
This is kind of attentional bias can be found even in the animal kingdom, where hypervigilance to perceived danger cues, where no threat actually exists, can lead to pathological behaviors that can threaten the animal’s survival (e.g. self-starvation due to hyperresponsiveness to alarm calls heard in the feeding area) (5).
In humans, the conditioned behaviors can be equally as destructive, both to our physical health and to the health of our relationships. For example, in their study of emotion regulation and cognitive process in individuals experiencing significant and sustained fear and worry related to the COVID-19 pandemic, da Silva Castanheira et al. (2021) found that the fear response both slowed and impeded cognitive functioning and particularly the subjects’ information processing abilities. At the same time, the fear response made the subjects more risk averse (6).
When it comes to your relationships, the neurological impacts of fear are limitless. First, the attentional bias that results from an amygdala hijack means that, if you’re expecting to find signs that your partner is cheating, you’re going to find them–even if your brain has to fabricate them itself. Second, it means that, when your limbic system takes over, you lose the ability to rationally evaluate or respond to your circumstances, your relationships, or the feelings and actions of others. Third, because you become more risk averse, you are going to become conditioned to be fearful and avoidant. You will learn, consciously or unconsciously, to see danger in everything and everyone, even (or especially) those you love the most.
Recognizing the Signs
Because the fear response is often a conditioned response that originates in the primitive parts of the brain, where instinct and reflex reign, we often don’t even recognize it’s happening. Often, all we see is the evidence our attentional bias has fabricated, amplified, or misinterpreted while in the throes of an amygdala hijack.
However, there are some tell-tale physiological indicators that can help you recognize when your (conscious or unconscious) fear has taken over. Specifically, you will likely notice that your heart is racing and your breathing is rapid and shallow. Your palms may become sweaty and you may get gooseflesh. Your muscles are likely to become taut and tense and you may develop a nauseated or “sinking” feeling in your stomach. If you look in the mirror, you may find that your pupils have dilated. All of these are physiological indicators of the “fight or flight response,” the signs that your primitive brain has been activated by some perceived danger, whether real or imagined, physical, or psychological and emotional.
Unless you take action to stop the fear cascade, you’re almost inevitably going to find yourself trapped in one of the four flavors of fear: You’re going to fight with your friend or loved one, run away from them (flight), or you’re going to emotionally shut down (freeze and faint). Any of these responses, over time, can spell destruction for your relationships.
How to Befriend and Work With The Fear
The good news is that once you recognize the physiological signs of fear, you can intervene to stop the spiral. It does not work to tell someone to stop being afraid or to tell yourself to stop being scared. The best approach is to acknowledge it. One of the first and best things that you can do is to regulate your breathing. Slow, deep breaths through the nose have been shown not only to mitigate the limbic fear response but also to improve overall cognitive functioning, including the ability to more accurately identify true fear stimuli (7).
Movement has been studied for years to help people shift beyond fear and ease their nervous system (8). Animals demonstrate this by responding to fear with a quick shake off and wiggle. Up to 2 minutes of movement has been found to be most effective according to Katie Hendricks Ph.D. who developed a unique series of movements aligned with the different types of fear (faint, flee, fight, and freeze) called Fear Melters. Using movement to shift out of fear helps bring you back to a problem solving frame of mind so you can find solutions to move through whatever was holding you back.
In addition, there is also significant evidence that mindfulness training can help to stop the fear cascade and end the amygdala hijack (9, 10, 11). Mindfulness literally retrains your brain to focus on the present, rather than becoming embroiled in past pain and future fears. The effects of mindfulness training can be so profound, in fact, that they have been shown to significantly reduce the symptoms of PTSD in combat veterans exposed to severe trauma symptom triggers (13, 14).
How Casa Alternavida Can Help
At Casa Alternavida, our mission is to help you live your best life. That includes equipping you with the tools you need to escape the snares of fear and worry. Our multidisciplinary team can help you regain power over your own life and relationships through mindset shifts, conscious awareness, and body intelligence. Our retreats are designed to help individuals, couples, families, and groups learn key tools to help connect to your essential self and reduce the low-grade fear most people are living in. This includes specialized training in areas such as mindfulness, meditation, and breathwork. Contact us today to discuss how Casa Alternavida can help you regain peace and joy in your life and relationships.
Casa Alternavida was founded on the principle that there are healthier, “alternative” ways to balance life and work. This alternative is to stop the unconscious addiction to stress, overwhelm, and struggle to focus on a healthy, balanced lifestyle that yields better results. Our practitioners are trained to support you with unraveling those unconscious commitments so you can actively create the lifestyle you want to be living, take charge of your well-being, and reset bad habits. We are experts at creating playful experiences in nature that inspire deep personal insight and long-term positive behavior change. Teams walk away from our facility with new excitement for their projects, practices to work smarter, and a deep appreciation of their companies. If you are a business that cares about your employees and wants to enhance your workplace culture, we are dedicated to providing alternative ways of building resilient leaders and teams.
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