What is Fear and Why do we have Fear?

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Everyone is afraid of something.

In fact, for many people fear is one of the most important things that controls the course of their lives, even if they're not aware of it. We all tend to avoid the things that we fear, and therefore we often don't recognize them as something we're afraid of, deep down inside.

Living with our fears is natural. A certain amount of fear in our lives is a natural thing. In fact, fear is the underlying emotion for many other feelings. A woman can be angry with her husband and scold him for coming home late without calling. Why? Because she's been worried sick, and then her worry for her husband's wellbeing changes into worry because he hasn't bothered to call home to let her know he'd be late.

In many cases emotions such as anger, hate or pride are often caused by fear, and it may cause us to behave arrogant, whimsical or distant. We're so good in hiding fear behind these 'secondary' emotions that we often can't see our own fear.

Together with love, the other 'primary' emotion, fear is one of the most powerful forces that drive us.

A certain amount of fear is natural. But some fears get out of hand. Sometimes the fear becomes so strong, so real, that it will present itself in its raw form, as cold, blind terror. The fear will become a reality, the most important thing in life. That kind of fear can keep you awake at nights, it can paralyze you by day, and it will effectively keep you from doing what you need to overcome it. This is the kind of fear that needs to be controlled, that needs to be conquered. In some cases that may seem impossible. But it can be done.

Understanding Fear

The first step in dealing with fear is learning to recognize it for what it is. Recognizing (and in some cases analyzing) our fears is very important in the process of dealing with them. Ultimately, there is one fear that is the basis of all others: the fear that we may not be able to deal with whatever may happen. That 'basic' fear manifests itself in two forms.

Fear itself is a mechanism that resides in the 'animal part' of ourselves, a mechanism intended to keep us out of harmful situations. Fear of heights, for example, is a mechanism that tries to keep us out of those situations where falling is a possibility. Fear of spiders (and other black hairy things that crawl around on too many legs) might keep us away from potentially harmful varieties. Fear of drowning keeps us out of the water. In fact these are very 'sensible' fears.

Then there are those fears based upon previous experience. Someone who has nearly drowned may be afraid to swim. Someone who has been abused may fear people. Someone who has nearly been electrocuted may be afraid to plug in an appliance. These fears are 'learned' fears, and it's a way for our subconscious to say "Hey, you've been there before and it hurt, don't do it again."

The first kind of fear, the reflexive kind, may be overcome by realizing what the fear is trying to do: it is nothing but a reflex to keep us out of harms way, to make us avoid situations that we can't handle. Those instinctive fears don't take into account our ability to cope with certain situations, or other factors that minimize danger.

For example, I may be afraid of heights, but if there is no danger of falling, there's really nothing to be afraid of. The height itself, after all, isn't all that dangerous, it's the fall that can do harm. But my subconscious fear- reflex, the animal instinct if you will, doesn't realize that, and it reacts.

(Some people actually enjoy this. A good fear jolt will get the adrenaline flowing, it will speed up the heart rate and heighten the blood pressure. It's what makes thrillseekers bunji-jump from a bridge, skydive out of a plane or drive a car at 300 miles per hour. They know they can control the situation, but there's just enough fear to start the adrenaline rush that they enjoy so much.)

So my fear of heights is a normal reflex. But the fear is blind. Because the fear reflex doesn't know much about safety measures, my knees tend to feel weak whenever I look down from a great height, whether I like it or not. However, realizing that the fear is just a reflex to prevent the danger of falling helps a lot. The reflex to be afraid is still there... but now I can tell myself that, yes, I'm afraid, but it's a reflex that knows nothing about the details of the current situation. I really can't fall, and now I'm going to do whatever I set out to do. I've been feeding this body for thirty-odd years now, so this time it's bloody well going to do what I want.

The fear won't go away, the reflex is still there, my knees will still feel weak and my stomach tight... but at least I can now realize that I am in charge of myself, and not the fear.

The second kind of fear, the one we learn, is more difficult, since the past has proven that we were in situations that we could not handle. "Look", the fear will tell you, "You did nearly die by drowning or or by fire, you did suffer abuse you were unable to defend yourself against." And we will be afraid of situations that seemed so very safe before, and that still feel safe to others. Love your dog and he'll greet you when you come home, but kick him hard enough and often enough and he'll cower when you enter the room.

Overcoming these fears isn't all that easy. First of all it requires learning to deal with the situations that we're afraid of, or changing the situation so that the trauma can never occur again. If I nearly drowned, for example, maybe I should learn to swim better. If I nearly died in a fire, perhaps I should install safety equipment and train myself in a few good fire drills. If I suffered abuse, perhaps I should learn to be more assertive and train for self defense.

Even more important is to realize that the current situation is different from the one that caused the fear. For example, if I nearly got killed in a certain building, I may be afraid to go in there again. By taking every possible precaution against further harm and then going in anyway, I prove to myself that I am in charge, and not the fear. I learn to see that what happened once doesn't have to happen again. And eventually the fear reflex will understand this as well, although it may be a slow learner.

The bottom line: fear only has power over us if we allow it to. We cannot just ignore the reflexes, we cannot pretend they're not there. It doesn't work that way. But everyone is afraid of something. It's part of what we are, it's part of being human. We should not let the fear control us. We do that frequently... and stopping it is difficult... but it can be done.

Realize what your fears are. Recognize them for what they are. Tell them that they have no power over you.

Respect your fears... acknowledge them... but do not let them control you. You are in control, and fear has no power of its own. It's perfectly all right to be afraid. It's not a sign of weakness or of failure. Everyone is afraid, everyone has fears. Fear is part of us, part of what we are. I know, admitting fear is not the macho behavior that modern society often demands of us... but macho characters are just as often afraid as anyone... but they're also afraid of letting it show.

Breaking the Fear Habit

Fear is like old shoes. You put them on in the morning, take them off in the evening. They've come to fit you perfectly, and you wouldn't know what to do without them. If you buy new shoes, you still tend to prefer the old ones that fit you so well... But one day you're going to need new shoes, because your old ones only have so much more mileage left in them. So eventually you just have to replace them... You have to take off your trusty old shoes and put on new ones. It's a simple choice: either you get new shoes, or you stay home for the rest of your life.

Just as you wouldn't leave home without your shoes on, you can't just leave the fear behind you and expect not to have cold feet. You need something to replace the fear with. Things like hope, optimism, self-confidence. These will be your new shoes.

At first, take it easy. Would you buy new shoes and start a foot trek to the other side of the continent? I think not... At least, I wouldn't. You need to get used to you new shoes. You need to 'break them in'. So you put them on and you take short walks. You just stroll around the block. You wear them for a morning at the office where you can sit down, and if your feet really hurt you can take them off.

Only after your feet and your new shoes have gotten used to each other, you start wearing them every day, and then you're ready for that foot trek. If you start out too soon, you'll only have blisters and sore feet.

Fear is like that. Yes, you have to leave the fear behind you and replace it by positive feelings, and you can do the things the fear kept you from doing... but you need to get used to it.

Take short walks, so to speak. Get used to your new emotional footwear. Before you know it your new shoes have come to fit you just as well as your old ones did... and you're ready for that long walk that the sorry condition of your old shoes kept you from undertaking.

Easy? No. But then, few things that are really worthwhile ever are. New shoes take some getting used to, and a blister or two is not uncommon. But in the end, you'll walk the distance.

Taking Steps for Releasing Fear

If fear is playing a major role in our lives, the things that we fear become reality. We just know that if we try this or that, we're going to fail. Soon this thought pattern becomes a habit, and from then on we don't even try to break it, because we "know" that it's beyond our ability.

Habits are hard to break, and this one is no exception. However, the most important thing is to get started. When breaking in new shoes, the important thing is to walk, not to be getting anywhere. That comes later.

There are a few things that might help. There's not a one-size-fits-all method, there is no 'cookbook' to describe how to deal with any particular kind of fear pattern. But there are a few rules of thumb.

Analyze your fear. What is it that you're afraid of? What is it that you don't dare to do? Why would you like to do it? And if you'd try, what might happen? Think about it. Write it down. Read it back. Then feel what the idea does to you. Where do you feel the fear? In your head? In your stomach? In your legs? Feel.

Now take a step back from the fear. Do not picture yourself doing what you fear, but instead try to analyze. Don't feel. Think.

What may have been the cause of this fear? What are the reasons? Where does the fear come from? Ask yourself these questions.

Then try to associate. Think of the things that you suspect to have caused the fear. Close your eyes, sit back, and relax. Then picture the cause inside your mind.

What does it make you think of? Which memories does it bring back? Which faces, which images, sounds, smells, places, faces, colors, voices or people does it make you think of? Which situations? What did you feel at the time? How does that relate to what you feel when you think of whatever you fear?

Dissociate. As you play back the memories before your mind's eye, take a step back. Will yourself to recognize the movie for what it is. Because that is what it is -- a record of things past, that you now play back at will.

Do you see it? Look... there they are, the edges of the frame. The movie flickers now and then, and the picture jumps with each missing frame. The picture quality slowly deteriorates, and the colors become pale and washed out.

Do you see it? Now turn around and switch off the projector. You can do that. You are in control - not the movie. Now take the spool of film out of the projector. Hold it in your hands. Do you see how feeble and powerless it is?

You can do with the film whatever you like. Cut it up. Burn it and see how the smoke drifts away, carried by the wind. Tie it to a balloon and watch it fly off into the sunset. Do whatever you like. The power is yours to do with it as you please. Cast off your fears, like a pair of old shoes.

Now it's time to make a new movie. Imagine yourself doing the things you fear, and succeeding. Concentrate. Yes, this may be fearful. Your new shoes don't fit right away. But try them on. Imagine the things you fear, and don't be afraid to be afraid.

But wait! What is it that you're afraid of? You're only imagining things! Do you see that? You were afraid of something you only imagined. It wasn't real! There was nothing to be afraid of! It was only in your own mind!

Funny. The fear you just have been feeling was nothing but your own imagination. So do it again. Play back this new movie you're making. Feel free to edit. Cut out the fear. It never was real to begin with. Replace it, with feelings of confidence, with strength, with happiness. Play the movie again. Better, isn't it? But not yet perfect.

Let it rest. You wouldn't walk a marathon on brand-new shoes, would you? It's enough for now. Tomorrow's another day. Tomorrow you can do it again. There may be a little fear again, right at the beginning... but now you know that the whole thing is imaginary, so there's no reason to fear. Picture yourself... without fear. It will get easier every day.

Practice makes perfect. After putting on your new shoes, take a walk around the block. Say hi to that girl you were so shy of. Say no to that guy that has been pushing you around forever. Take a good look at that spider before throwing it out, instead of running from it.

Of course it won't all work the first time. Don't berate yourself. Old reflexes are strong, and they take time to wear off. But watch yourself. Don't let old reflexes control you. You are in charge, not the fear, not the reflexes.

Also, don't force yourself before you're ready. If you have just put on your new shoes and you find you have to walk far, it's OK to put on your old shoes again -- just for a while. But not longer. Don't put it off. Don't keep telling yourself you're not ready. Because if you keep that up, you never will be.

If your old fear-reflexes kick in, question them. Is there really so much to be afraid of? Are your fears real? Is the danger more real that the fears of your own imagination ever were?

Then the day will come that your old fears are gone. What's left are the memories of those fears. Understand the difference: you used to be afraid, but now that's nothing but a memory. Just like the memory of a pair of old shoes, that you no longer need.

Why keep around old junk? Why clutter your life with past issues? Throw them out, with thanks. They have served you, but you have outgrown them. Now they're nothing but dead weight. Just let it go. Welcome to the new you!

By Frank van Wensveen