Fear is a vehicle for self-preservation. Without fear we could not function. It is critical to our existence. It’s main function is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, triggering appropriate adaptive responses that will help us to overcome them. However, the mechanisms that trigger our fear have changed: no tigers around the corner, no cobras in the hole. Yet our modern world differs from our ancestral heritage, we continue to fear that which isn’t there anymore. Fear has become, in many ways, an obstacle to thriving.
Every time we are in fear, our sympathetic nervous system activates, which is in fact a natural adaptative reaction that can become pathological, causing severe damage in most cases. Why is that? The sympathetic nervous system must cooperate with its homologue, the parasympathetic. While the first represents the fight or flight response, the second is the restore and repair. They must coexist, switching from one to the other in a continuous and infinite dance of reality. However, our modern life usually triggers the sympathetic response so hard that we stay there for hours, days, weeks, months, years… Our fear pushes us to stay there because the source of it is always around. Where exactly? In our conditioned minds. Most of the time, our fear is imaginary.
Related to fear is anxiety, a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential. It is characterized by increased arousal, expectancy, autonomic and neuroendocrine activation, and specific behavior patterns. The function of these changes is to facilitate coping with an adverse or unexpected situation. However, pathological anxiety interferes with the ability to cope successfully with life challenges.
The amygdala plays a pivotal role in coordinating the behavioral, neuroendocrine, and prefrontal cortical responses to the psychological stress that fear and anxiety cause. Scientific research shows that training the amygdala actually regulates our response to fear and stress. Through mindfulness practice, our emotional center (the limbic system and specifically the amygdala) relaxes, which ultimately triggers a parasympathetic response, with the release of beneficial biochemicals like endorphins instead of harmful ones like cortisol (and other stress hormones). Studies show that the basolateral amygdala may be involved in the acquisition and representation of positive reinforcement values. Therefore, the amygdala is probably a key structure for the integration of behavior in conflicting situations, when both potentially rewarding and aversive stimuli are present. With only 8 weeks of practice, our amygdala will shrink and cool down, learning to integrate more rewarding stimuli.
A cool, calmed amygdala is the key to keep our fear in balance. The purpose is not to lose all fear, which is probably not even possible (and in case that it is possible, it surely is not healthy). What we can do with practice is recognize the sympathetic response that fear causes in our autonomic nervous system; once we become aware of the fear arising in our minds, we can start to consciously respond to it instead of automatically reacting. This state of awareness will allow us to feel safe, which will ultimately lead us to a parasympathetic state. It is not the fear itself, but the way we perceive our fear.
Fear advises us that it is necessary to proceed with caution, but also alerts us that there may be tremendous rewards awaiting. Every crisis (dramatic change) comes with fear, allowing us to make use of something that lies inside of us, something that was there but we never knew: a skill, a gift, a latent power. Fear uncovers our true nature, our beauty. Being afraid is a natural response; right action despite our fear is a divine response.
Image: “Fear of the dark” by stuart63 under CC-BY