In today’s climate, it can feel that fear is an unavoidable facet of our lives. Everyday it seems we hear of increasing violence and consume news media that can lead us to feel a heightened sense of fear. At the same time, as a society, we are dealing with overwhelming fear and anxiety.
But, fear is not necessarily a negative or an emotion to be avoided. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that fear often ensured survival for our ancestors. When faced with an imminent threat, the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” response would be activated, allowing them to either become paralyzed and do nothing, stay and fight, or flee from danger. The emotion or feeling of fear is necessary today for survival as well. Fear tells us to to be alert if we feel we are being followed at night. Fear tells us not to go out into the sun without sun screen. Fear tells us to wear a helmet while riding our bike.
Context is important when faced with a fear-inducing stimulus. When fear kicks in, your brain has to assess how immediate and dangerous the potential threat is. For example, you would react differently to a masked figure chasing you at a haunted corn maze than you would to a figure chasing you down a dark street. Our brains can often decipher the legitimacy of the threat. However, the feelings of fear and the mechanisms in the brain are the same. For instance, your heart may race and you may feel fear when going into an interview of a job that you want. Feeling fear does not always mean something is wrong. In that sense, we must sometimes push past our fears.
Fear can rob us of opportunities to grow. Fear can keep us from taking risks, asking for a raise, changing careers, or following our ideas and passions. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book “Big Magic”, talks about fear as something that is necessary, but that should not be allowed to control our lives. She gives an analogy of keeping fear in the ‘backseat of the car.’ Not that we can fully kick it out of the car (nor should we), but by kicking fear out of the driver’s seat, we can decipher threat from opportunity and not allow fear to control our lives. We do not (always) have to allow fear to dictate where the car goes.
Fear can keep us from action (e.g. not taking that job due to fear of failure, not going to the movies for fear of gun violence, avoiding going to the dinner party for fear of others’ judgments, etc.). It can keep us from partaking in everyday life events and experiencing enjoyment. Fear and anxiety affect nearly 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety and fear-related disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you feel that fear is negatively impacting your daily life, please reach out to a therapist. We would be happy to work with you.