Fear, when experienced constantly and in the form of true danger, abuse, or hypervigilant anxiety, can incapacitate us. Even if not at this extreme, many individuals I know and work with experience a fear inducing situation and hesitate to approach similar situations ever again. For example, plenty of men I’ve worked with get out of long term relationships gone awry and swear to bachelordom forever. Others, attempt college at the wrong time in their lives and then are paralyzed by fear for years before going back. Fear effects both our mind and our body (Mclean Hospital).
In therapy, fear can be simpler to address than general anxiety, though. Anxiety is vague and subjective, there is no concrete end and start. This is why we can feel anxious about endless things or, worse, feel a state of anxiousness that we cannot explain whatsoever. Fear, however, is concrete. The thing we fear either happens or it does not. While chronic fear can cause a slew of physical health problems (i.e.: gastric issues, cardiovascular problems), impaired memory, decreased impulse regulation, and of course chronic mental health issues (i.e.: PTSD, depression), doses of fear can be extremely good for humans. Here is a list of how:
1. Listening to our limbic system protects us from real danger. Our limbic system has an innate capacity, through the amygdala, to rapidly process dangerous sights, smells, and noises. For example, if you notice someone walking rapidly down a secluded street, your amygdala will likely pull you towards the other side of the street or a brighter area, without much conscious thought. While anticipating being mugged isn’t a healthy sensation all the time, in such situations it certainly can protect us from potentially dire harm.
2. Rollercoasters? Sky diving? Scary movies? Fear can be fun! As mentioned in point one, our amygdala serves as our security guard. However, the amygdala is also related to our pleasure and reward response. Oxytocin, the hormone most commonly referenced when we give birth, is also released when we have this type of fear, making us feel bonded with our sky diving buddy.
3. Confidence is the remedy to fear. The only way to gain access to this antidote is by seeing yourself walk through fears. We can’t lie to ourselves about it, we need to see ourselves take action. The key to taking action is not necessarily ignoring your feelings, but moving towards valued action in spite of them. Prompt, quick action does not mean neglecting weighing out the pros and cons. However, people who get stuck in fear, like in the form of test anxiety, often also get to a place of stalemate in their pros and cons list.
4. Most of us understand the adrenaline response, which creates a stress response. However, with adrenaline, the hormone norepinephrine is released. Norepinephrine’s side effect is focus and clarity, thus it’s inclusion in many antidepressants. In this way, a bit of fear about the unknown or regarding getting caught up in distraction (i.e: phone scrolling standing in the way of getting your work done), can prompt us to refocus.
5. Overcoming a fear or even getting close, allows us more access to self care. When we realize we have the capacity to tone our nervous system and take action, we often become motivated to engage in activities that will benefit our future selves. Healthy habits like exercising, spending time with friends, and meditating tend to seem more accessible when we don’t feel so bound by our fears. We feel less bound by our fears when we move through them with repetition.