Fear is an aspect of life that we as humans are all very familiar with. This is something that maintains a strong role in how we behave and influences many of the choices we make each day.
What is interesting, though, is how unaware we can be about the deep rooted purpose that fear has in our life. We are so accustomed to the notorious feelings that worry and fear can produce, the fact that fear is actually responsible for our survival and development has become an elusive concept that is easily taken for granted.
Though fear is a very common phenomenon, understanding what really causes it has been a tough one to grasp for those studying it over the years. As research has evolved, more and more layers are being peeled away.
Understanding what causes fear begins with a better comprehension of the brain. The fight or flight response has become a familiar point of discussion when examining fear, but it is important to understand the mechanics that are at play. Fear is a natural mechanism of defense against perceived danger.
To understand more about the fear response, we have to familiarize ourselves with the biology involved in the fear process.
Here are the 4 major systems of the brain beginning with the most primitive and moving up to our more recently developed and civilized regions:
Brain Stem – The automatic functions of survival such as breathing and other unconscious systems.
Limbic System – The amygdala is part of the limbic system which comprises of other parts such as the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and the cortex. The various parts of the limbic system are responsible for different functions which mainly include control of emotions and feelings.
Cerebellum – Motor skills, coordination, and sensory perception. This system is constantly relaying information to and from the brain about balance, posture, movement, and even finer motor skills like reading and writing.
Cerebrum – The most recent and sophisticated development of the brain. This region of the brain consists of four lobes; and together they are responsible for some amazing things such as creativity, planning, memory, problem solving, and reasoning.
The reason we feel fear so strongly in our life is because the amygdala — responsible for our survival and fight or flight response — is located in the Limbic System.
The amygdala is the closest to our brain stem, which makes it the oldest functioning system on the evolutionary spectrum. Because the amygdala was our only brain function at one point, it's stronger and more powerful than the weaker and more recent brain functions.
You may have noticed that it is pretty difficult to plan or execute a creative idea when you are in the middle of even the most minor crisis. The amygdala is capable of shutting down all systems if there is even a tingling possibility of danger.
The amygdala — working cohesively with the rest of the lymbic system — operates by sending impulses to the hypothalamus. This triggers a release of hormones responsible for regulating emotional response to stimuli and also aggressive behavior.
During a frightening experience, impulses are sent directly to the lateral hypothalamus which in effect increases heart and blood pressure through the release of adrenaline. This prepares the body for a sudden response.
The Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response system — also known as the acute stress response — is a reaction to something frightening, either physically or mentally. The whole process is triggered by the release of hormones that strategically prepare the body to either stay and fight or escape by all means. This concept was properly conceived and understood by a Walter Cannon, an American physiologist.
During a fearful experience, the sympathetic nervous system is activated by the release of two hormones which are adrenaline and noradrenaline. The adrenaline production triggers the increase in breathing and the heart rate. The effect of these hormones wears off only minutes after the threat is withdrawn or dealt with.
The sole purpose for the fight or flight response is to prepare the body physically to either fight or escape. What’s more interesting is the fact that the threat does not always have to be real.
Now that we have the ability to carry more advanced emotion, creativity and mental capacity, our fear response in the brain has a lot more to process and more potnetial fears to assess. Illusory threats such as the fear of failure and other psychological fears may also trigger the acute stress response just as tangibly as any real visible threat.
We can appreciate that the fight-or-flight response is a very crucial system for our individual survival, but with our growth as humanity also came the growth in ego. The ego is driven by fearful behavior. The ego hates being called out; hates being different; hates not being reassured; and hates being wrong.
All of this is diretly fueled by the amygdala. With new oppertunites to think creatively comes new possibility of threat.
You have amazing things available to you through your advanced and sophisticated mind. You have desires, inspired thought, visions, and creative ideas for a reason.
Fear has it’s place, but just because this response is built into our biology, does not always make it neccesary or even appropriate to become submissive to its gravitational force.
Each time we practice awareness in the face of fear, we are activating the prefrontal cortex of our brain. This area of the brain is responsible for taking disciplined action and focusing on positive intention.
This is very difficult at first, but each time you take the seat of awareness when facing challenge, you are actually strengthening the weaker parts of your creative brain.
Try sitting with your fear instead of turning away. Turning away and avoiding it will keep you constrained in your circle of safety. Ironically enough, the circle of safety can turn out to be pretty dangerous if you never end up realizing the potential of what you are capable of outside of it.
Today pressure and stress are part of our lives and finding ways to cope are hard to come by, or come with a price. Knowledge can go a long way when it comes to developing a better relationship with the mind.