Every February 14th, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine, and “Love”. Certainly, Love is an appealing subject to write about, but in this month of February, I choose to explore the anatomy of fear as I believe that it is the emotion of fear that keep us from feeling and having Love in our life.
In the economic uncertainty and the related challenges that we are facing globally, we have become an emotional breeding ground for feelings of fear. We all have fears; every human in the world experiences fear. The emotion of fear does not belong to any specific group or skin color.
Do you know many people who talk genially about their fear at dinner? Probably not, most of us cloak ourselves in a blanket of fear/anxiety/stress, until a traumatic event happens, then we can no longer avoid entering the “valley of fears”.
SO WHAT IS FEAR?
In our culture we all experience fear in different ways. Fear manifests itself in many forms, many emotional disguises, and has many ramifications. For many of us fear defines our thoughts, our behaviors in our relationships, and who we are in the world. Fear may express itself as a form of contraction, emotional discomfort, a feeling of melancholy, tension, worry or insecurity. It can also be appear as symptoms of anxiety, stress, panic attacks, phobia, nervousness, and post- traumatic stress disorders. Another less obvious manifestation of fear is the desire to change or control our environment and the people in it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19 million people in the United States alone suffer from mental illnesses that involve irrational fear responses.
Let’s look at Biological Fear as a chain reaction in the brain: The Fight /Flight Response. This response has a legitimate function because it alerts us to something which could possibly be harmful to us. The dictionary definition of fear is an “unpleasant emotion caused by exposure to danger, expectation of pain.” The ability to feel fear is hardwired in our brains. It is a basic survival mechanism in response to pain or threat of danger.Let’s play a scenario: its dark out and you’re home alone. The house is quiet other than the Oprah show you’re watching on TV. Then suddenly out of the corner of your eye, you see and hear the front door being thrown against the door frame. Your breathing speeds up and becomes shallow, your heart races, your eyes dilate, and your muscles tighten. You think someone is there to “get you”. No time to think about poetry, you react automatically and quickly or you may find yourself frozen by the intensity of the fear. A split second later, you realize it’s the wind. No one is trying to get into your home, and finally you relax.
For a split second, you were so afraid that you reacted as if your life were in danger, your body initiated the fight-or-flight response that is critical to survival. But in fact, you realize there was no danger at all. What happened to cause such an intense reaction?
Fear is an unconscious chain -reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus (sensory input) and ends with the release of chemicals. This biological autonomic response to danger is a brilliant mechanism embedded in the brain’s consciousness. The process looks like this: The door knocking against the door frame is the stimulus. As soon as you hear the sound and see the movement, your brain sends this sensory data to the thalamus. At this point, the thalamus doesn’t know if the signals it’s receiving are signs of danger or not, but since they might be, it forwards the information to the amygdala, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. The autonomic nervous system “thinks” it is danger of dying. The amygdala receives the neural impulses and takes action to protect you; it tells the hypothalamus to initiate the fight-or-flight response that could save your life.
The human body’s response to fear / anxiety is exactly the same whether a threat is real or imagined.
In the modern world our genes that build our brains and bodies spend most of their time dealing with the laws of the jungle. Our autonomic nervous system can’t tell the difference between a tiger coming to devour us or losing our job. With no conscious thoughts, we constantly categorize things, either as safe or as threatening, based on our personal knowledge of the world and previous experiences.
Experiencing fear/stress every now and then is a normal part of life. But living with chronic fear can be both physically and emotionally debilitating. The cerebral cortex, the brain’s center for reasoning and judgment, is the area that becomes impaired when the amygdala senses on-going fear, and the ability to think and reason decreases. The body is not given a chance to return to a normal cycle. Prolonged states of fear may damage the heart, weaken the immune system, and create a range of metabolic disorders. It can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, and weakening of the endocrine system. Further implications of negative fear contribute to high levels of cholesterol, and reduced bone density.
In essence the amygdala stays “switched on” most of the time. The reasoning mind hasn’t been able to over-ride the switch, so stress hormones and adrenaline increase in the body, and eventually we do not feel sick.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective prolonged exposure to fear will damage the kidneys. Kidney deficiency in TCM can manifest in various symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, lack of will power, ear ringing, low back pain, issues with the central nervous system, poor short term memory, premature grey hair, incontinence, low libido, miscarriages, and night sweats. Even history of sexual abuse left untreated can create fertile ground for a pattern of kidney Qi dysfunction to manifest. Please refer to the guidelines of my last Post Paradise article “Winter Dreams” page 11 on tips to strengthen the kidneys.
Fear in this category is divorced from any concrete and true immediate danger. It keeps us from achieving goals or tasks that range from the mundane to the extraordinary. This kind of fear is not something that is happening in the present time, but of something that might happen in the future; the big “WHAT IF?”
Does fear live in the objects we name, or is fear a projection from within ourselves onto the world around us? Let’s name a few. Fear of loss, fear of failure, of being hurt and rejected. Fear of humiliation, of anger, fear of disapproval, of being alone and left behind, fear of intimacy, of being wrong or judged, rejected. Fear of success, and disease. Fear of the unknown, fear of death, that’s a big one! Are these fears familiar to you? What about the fear of not fitting in, the fear that we don’t measure up or the fear of being ourselves! What are we really afraid of? That our money will be stolen? That we’ll get sick and die? That nobody will love us? Are we afraid of what we’ve done in the past, or of our desires in this moment?
I could easily fill up a couple of pages of this imaginary “WHAT IF”? Is there ever an end to fear? Is it possible that most fears come from the same source? I believe so.
When we allow ourselves to go to the unmasked moments of life, and be with the experience of fear itself, not the story of fear but the energy of fear, we may realize that fears distill into one core primal fear: the fear of separation.
The fear of separation is expressed by a deep sense of emptiness, disconnected from something or from someone. It triggers a sense of loss, insecurity, and doubt. In the mist of our ancient memory we may feel that we have been abandoned, rejected, or unworthy to receive. We may believe we are “not good enough”. How can we trust and feel safe when our survival is threatened?
– The fear of abandonment can include the pain of loneliness, and betray. We may feel excluded, forsaken, rejected, alienated, and the sense that we do not exist.
– Fear of trusting. Have you ever experienced a relationship where your level of trust and safety was so deep that you were able to surrender completely to the experience of intimacy and caring? Many of us believe that the world is not safe, and as such we cannot surrender and trust people and places. Neither we can trust our own body wisdom, and surrender to the inner voice of knowing what is right for us. Trust is such a huge factor in health issues. A lot of health challenges ultimately stem from a lack of trust.
– The fear that I am not good enough runs deep in our culture. Somehow we feel we do not deserve to receive love and joy, to be successful, healthy, honored and respected. We are not worthy to feel good or to fulfill our dreams. This fear manifests as low self-esteem, and self- worth. We long for approval, acceptance, and self- love.
Next, I will be writing on how to break free from fear. Read on….