The Wisdom of Fear

“The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source.”
– Thich Naht Hanh

Welcome to the wisdom of fear, an emotion many of us seek to avoid at all costs, while others purposely seek out (where are my thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies, and scary movie fans?!).

Fear resides in the same house as worry, anxiety, panic and dread. Contrary to what you’ve likely been taught about these emotions, they are essential and offer deep wisdom.

However, as they feel so awful – terrifying even, it’s common to avoid, ignore, deny, or suppress them, which is where the problems begin.

When we either suppress – or over-express, our emotions without insight or appropriate processing, we can begin to feel a loss of self.

May this series help return you home.

Through this series on emotions, you’ll learn the function and message of some of our main emotions. Further, you’ll learn how to be with them and navigate them – even the hard ones; and you’ll leave with information and specific practices to help you develop more emotional insight and mastery.

If you missed the intro to this series, you can read it here.

You may also like this video which gives more background to this work.

 

No Emotion is ‘Negativenor ‘Bad

No emotion is inherently negative or “bad”, including fear, anxiety, dread and panic, even though they feel that way.

I like to think of emotions as frequencies, like keys on a piano. They all carry a function, and when we can become masterful with them, we can live more fully and authentically.

Conversely, when we suppress, numb, distract, avoid or even seek to conquer them, we create dysfunctional relationships with them, which also limits our ability to live fully.

Growing up, you may have received advice like:

  • don’t be afraid
  • have no fear
  • fear is weakness
  • there’s nothing to be afraid of
  • be fearless (aka fear less)

This is reasonable when we’ve not been taught the essential function of this critical survival emotion, but it’s not necessarily intelligent, courageous nor brave.

When we aren’t processing our fear or anxiety effectively, it’s easy for those emotions to take root.

This can look like chronic, low or high-grade anxiety; muscle tension/aches and headaches; insomnia; waking at 2am or 3am with anxiety; feelings of dread; anixety/panic attacks; feeling stuck in life, unable to make a decision or move forward; or expressing these emotions in ways that are debilitating, blaming, violent, oppressive or paralyzing.

Understandably, these experiences can further re-enforce the belief that fear and anxiety need to be controlled or suppressed.

But, I’d like to offer a different way…

 

Today, I hope to shine the light on the message, gifts and purpose of fear.

When you can view fear as a powerful and critical survival emotion, you’ll be more apt to lean in and process it a way that supports you, rather than debilitates you.

This deep dive will help you identify fear from it’s close cousins of anxiety, panic and dread, and to learn to work with it with greater proficiency and ease.

 

The Function and Purpose 

Fear kicks in to help keep us alive in threatening situations – either by taking action (eg. fight or flight) or resisting action (eg. freeze or submit-collapse). 

“These three emotions [fear, panic and anxiety] are necessary right now, and each one has a very important job to do…  they help you identify changes and hazards, plan ahead, and make life-saving decisions. They have a lot of energy, however, so it’s important to care for yourself and work with them skillfully.”
– Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotions

In each case, the purpose is survival.

Fear allows us to “act” faster by way of by-passing the conscious, decision-making brain which could otherwise slow us down in a life-threatening situation. 

Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions distinguishes between fear, anxiety and panic, highlighting their positive function and potential gifts in the following ways:

  • Fear warns us of immediate threats and danger. It is present-focused. and rooted in deep instinctual and intuitive survival skills and abilities. It helps us fight, fight or flee from danger.
  • Anxiety alerts us to possible or impending threats. Like fear, it shows up whether those threats are physical or emotional, real or perceived. However, unlike fear it is future-focused, helping lead us to making decisions and preparations to ensure future success.
  • Panic is the next level of fear which helps save our lives when in danger. It is automatic, very intense and beyond our conscious decision-making abilities. It is not something we can consciously turn on or off, and it chooses for us what it deems the best response necessary for immediate survival in the given situation.

“Throughout evolutionary history, anxiety and fear have helped every species to be wary and to survive. Fear can signal us to act, or, alternatively, to resist the impulse to act. It can help us to make wise, self-protective choices in and out of relationships where we might otherwise sail endlessly along, ignoring signs of trouble.”
– Dr. Harriet Lerner, via
Atlas of the Heart

A “Core” Emotion

The body of emotional research is absolutely fascinating, and what becomes clear fairly quickly is the amount of differing expert opinion.

Some researchers, including psychoanalyst and emotion researcher, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, refer to fear as a Core Emotion, which is automatic and beyond our conscious control. 

Distinguishing Fear from Anxiety

Hendel makes a interesting distinction between fear and anxiety:

  • Fear is an “excitatory” emotion, carrying the energy needed to take action.
  • Anxiety is an “inhibitory” emotion, resulting from pushing down fear-based emotions that we don’t believe are okay to feel, or safe to express.

While McLaren describes anxiety as future-focused to help us get prepared and organized, H.J. Hendel shares that it can also show up in relation to the past/present when an occurrence of the past continues to influence us.

H.J. Hendel shares the following insights to help understand this better:

“While anxiety and fear feel similar, anxiety is a reaction to our emotions versus danger in the environment. Anxiety is a stop-reaction to the impulses that fear and other core emotions create inside the body.”

Simply put, fear mobilizes energy for movement and anxiety pushes it back down.

“If we know we are not in physical danger in a moment, yet we are experiencing something akin to fear, we can assume we are experiencing anxiety.”

You’ve likely heard that the same areas of the brain light up for physical danger like falling off a cliff as for psychological danger, such as being rejected or abandoned. Therefore, as fear can be present in face of either real or perceived, physical or psychological danger, it’s helpful to tune in and evaluate whether fear it’s actually warranted.

 

Intuition

Internationally renown criminologist, Gavin DeBecker, is quick to point out that many of us logic our way out of our fear and intuition to our own detriment.

“Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian (fear/intuition) that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.”
 Gavin DeBecker, The Gift of Fear 

Intuition is a very deep and strong survival sense, that should be honed and listened to. But, when we’re not used to doing so, it can be difficult to distinguish between wise intuition and unnecessary worry.

Lissa Rankin M.D., author of Mind Over Medicine shares 18 tips for developing your intuition here.


Sensations and Feelings

Fear, anxiety and panic can be hard to distinguish as they feel similar, but they do hold some differences. Knowing how they each feel and present in your body, is critical for being able to both identify them appropriately and process them effectively.

H.J. Hendel highlights the following sensations and feelings:

Fear can include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Chills
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea

Anxiety can include:

  • All of the above, plus…
  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
  • Tightness in throat (and sense of choking)
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Headache
  • Ear ringing
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) distress, nausea, abdominal pain
  • A sense of doom
  • Difficulty controlling worry/ruminating
  • Urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
  • Feeling insecure

Panic can include:

  • All of the above symptoms of anxiety, but more severe, abrupt, and often occurring without warning

 

Fearlessness vs. Bravery

We all know fearlessness.

If it wasn’t already present, we can develop it by becoming habituated, desensitized or more skilled at something that previously scared us.

Think of your own experience with being or becoming fearless.

You can likely realize that bravery was only been present in the initial phase of acting in face of fear, which dissipated with practice or over time.

For instance, driving a stick-shift in the “real” world (versus an empty parking lot), was frightening for me in the beginning. But, now that I’m practiced and skilled at driving, I no longer need to harness bravery to drive to the grocery store. 😉

Can you think of something that was scary at first, but you’re now fearlessness about it?

 

Urbach-Wiethe Syndrome: True Fearlessness

True fearlessness is actually a ‘thing’ and seems to occur when both sides of the amygdala are damaged. This is known as Urbach-Wiethe Syndrome (also known as Urbach-Wiethe Disease), a very rare recessive genetic disorder with many other symptoms and traits.

Physical symptoms aside, the behavioral impact seems to remove normal (and important) fear towards things like handling poisonous snakes and spiders, horror movies, and scary life-threatening situations.

Without the function of fear, a popular UWD patient known as S.M., is described as very friendly, uninhibited, out-going, upbeat, curious, and social. This may all sound great, however; her lack of fear and therefore appropriate judgement, has led to great impairment, revealing the important and critical function of fear…

With a lack of fear, S.W. doesn’t judge or evaluate social cues well; shows a lack of concern about personal space, even with strangers; and is impaired in her ability to interpret facial expressions such as fear, trustworthiness, and approachability.

As such, S.W. has been the victim of numerous acts of violence including life-threatening encounters, including being held at both knife-point and gun-point on different occasions, domestic abuse, and multiple death threats. Of note, was that although she didn’t like any of these experiences, she never felt fear.

 

A Powerful Way of Being with Fear and Anxiety

When you notice the presence of either anxiety or fear, thank it.

It is here for a reason and despite the discomfort, is trying to help you.

Note on secondary or “false” emotions: Blame often covers fear and anger. When covering fear,  blame can lead to common negative ego reactions such as competition, manipulation, control, and scarcity mindsets and destructive behaviors.

When I work with clients, often we can find fear through the door of blame or the above behaviors, even when we can’t fear isn’t initially recognized.

Identifying blame is very helpful, first because fear isn’t always obvious within ourselves. Second, when blame is helping us avoid feeling or dealing with our fear, we don’t get to process it. The impact: we get stuck.

 

Working Powerfully with Fear and Anxiety

Questions to ask your Fear:

  • Fear, what are you afraid of?
  • Fear, what are you trying to help me avoid experiencing?
  • Fear, what are you trying to protect me from?
  • Am I truly in danger? And, is fear an appropriate response?
  • If yes, what action(s) could help me return to safety?

Questions to ask your Anxiety:

  • Anxiety, what about the future, feels uncertain or unsafe?
  • Anxiety, what from my past is continuing to live in my body? (eg. memories, emotional patterns, trauma, etc.)
  • Anxiety, what do I need to make a decision about, take action on, or prepare for, in order to be successful in… ?
  • Anxiety, what emotions are you trying to subdue/repress, that don’t feel safe or appropriate to have?

This “conversation” can be done as a mindful meditative inquiry in your head, or with pen to paper.

When it comes time to answering the questions, try to give up controlling the answers. As woo-woo as it sounds, let your emotions flow through your pen and share their wisdom.

Once done with your “conversation”, again, thank your emotion.

This leaning in may not make fear or anxiety go away immediately, but as you work with it and make room for its’ wisdom, it will guide you towards solutions and ease off when the threat dissipates.

 

Re-framing Anxiety and Fear

In my training, we define emotions as a blend of thought (cognitive experience) and feeling (physical experience).

What’s powerful about this is to notice that many of the feelings of anxiety and fear are very similar to those of excitement and thrill (scroll up for a reminder).

What differs to create a fearful experience vs. exciting experience are the thoughts associated with the feelings. 

So, if you find that anxiety and fear are not warranted, and your body is still “alive” with sensation or over-stimulation, you can use the power of your mind to re-frame your experience to one of excitement and thrill. 

 

A Podcast: Lessons Learned the Hard Way 

For a fascinating conversation with a slightly different take, join Life Coach and podcaster Christine Hessler and author/motivational speaker, Mel Robbins here.

Learn more practical tips and tools for managing worry, rumination, anxiety, panic, and anxiety/panic attacks. If you are a parent of a child who suffers from any of this, Mel also shares some very helpful tips, learned the hard way. Listen here.