Compassion Matters

How to save a life

5 Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Love

When it comes to love, many of us feel victimized by circumstance, while failing to see that our biggest obstacle is how we get in our own way. In my previous blog, I explored why we do this. Here, I will address what we can do about it. How can we overcome our fears of intimacy to find and maintain the love we so desire? Read More

I commend you, Lisa, for a

I commend you, Lisa, for a very well articulated look at how fear can be such a destructive influence in relationships.

But it is important to emphasise that This fear effect is not a constant throughout humans, but a learned response that varies from person to person.

Our brains have a fear/alarm system called “the amygdala”. These are 2 small “almond shaped” structures centrally located in the brain in an area referred to as the limbic system. This is a primitive area of the brain that we share with all mammals. This fear/alarm system is autonomous and instinctual. It operates automatic defences. How much control we have over its instinctual impulses depends a great deal on how our brains grew as a response to our early emotional environments. And how much independent influence they impose relies on the strength of connections to regulatory systems in the brain (like the prefrontal cortex).

For instance, if our early experiences involved repeated or prolonged and intense periods of fear, then the areas of the brain associated with responding to danger will receive a boost in energy towards development of these particular areas, other areas, especially ones that moderate and calm the danger response, might not receive the same developmental energy and therefore growth that they might otherwise receive in a nurturing environment is impeded. We develop a heightened arousal for danger signals because our developmental experiences have educated neurons within the areas associated with fear response that the world we are growing up in is a dangerous world.

The fear/alarm system is memory based. When I say memory, it is not the kind of memory that you can recall in sounds or images. The fear/alarm system has its own memory system, often referred to as state level memory, or implicit memory. We are born with very few fears. Fears are primarily learnt. It works by recording something that caused distress, or fear for survival, and responding with a simple question of 2 responses, should I fight the threat or should I run away. This fight or flight response is very primitive, instinctual and basic to all mammals. Once the amygdala has experienced something that caused fear, it remembers that experience and the fear/alarm response switch is automatically triggered should a reminder of that experience occur.

People that have experienced threat or fear at the hands of their earliest emotional bonds, at a very primitive level of their brain, learn to react to emotional bonding with this fight or flight response. And the truth be told, we have all experienced some form or level of threat or fear at the hands of our earliest emotional bonds. We’ve all been punished to some extent or another by our parents and we’ve all experienced this with some level of fear response program. So we all suffer, to some extent or another, a fear response to emotional bonding.

But when you throw in to this equation prolonged and intense fear during early stages of development, like you might, say, in cases of abuse, neglect, parental abandonment or parental death. The programmed autonomous response of “emotional bonding means danger” is much stronger, dominant and irresistible.

It’s easily able take over our behaviours and perceptions because survival is a priority of the organism.

It’s a survival response. The primitive part of the brain literally thinks that “love” is a threat to survival and then the brain goes through a “connect the dots” calculation and concludes that the object of love is actually the threat to survival and must either be fought to drive it away or evaded and distanced from, so that it is no longer a danger. This whole behavioural process is dictated by the amygdala. When we haven’t developed a good system of regulation of the amygdala from the connections our neurons grew as we developed through insufficient parental nurture, the amygdala is able to literally hijack us and take over our behaviours, actions and perceptions in the interest of survival.


"...emotional bonding means danger" triggered off by our learnt survival responses and from memory. I love the derivative that many of us who have had a difficult past, the brain does a 'quick connect the dots calculation and sees LOVE as a THREAT triggering off a Fight and thus inevitably Flight response in us.' I understand my response better now and thank you for validating my thought process. Yes, I have a poorly developed system of regulation of the amygdala resulting from insufficient parental nurture. It's interesting to note that this 'amygdala' can "hijack" my behaviour. It's true! I want to say something comes out completely wrong. Often, it's like I have no control. I want to know how to break free of this cycle. I don't want to be making the same mistakes over and over again. That's not growth. I have tried meditation, past life regression and just good old plain 'stick it through!' Nothing works long time, though meditation calms me down for longer periods of time. Any suggestions/recommendations?


Loving-kindness meditation might be very helpful for you in developing more self-compassion. Also, a particular therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) might be useful in learning to both tolerate and manage your emotions. I hope this helps.

Very Inspiring!

The article rightly says, "Real love radiates out and is supported by and extended to others. Its contagious effects are likely to reflect back on us, filling our lives with meaningful interactions and relationships." Love begets love only when it is true! Here is how you can test true love:

similar article

Kind of reminds me of an article I wrote on the same topic many months ago:

Point no 2. My biggest struggle

It's a very well written piece. Point no 2 ( about the overtly critical self who is cynical about everything) particularly hit home with me. That's me. The cynic developed cos of my difficult relationship with my parents and my almost fatal sickness that had me in its grasp for most of my childhood. I am in a constant struggle to let go if the past, in order to let go of the unnecessary cynicism that does more damage than good...but when something has been a part of you for so long...something that helped you survive and stand let go, is being vulnerable and I am just not sure. Who do I trust?

Re: Point no 2. My biggest struggle

I would suggest reading "Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice," and also engaging in the services of a psychotherapist. You want to make sure to find someone who you feel comfortable with, which may take a little looking, but that would be ideal. You can have a much better life if you start to deal with this.

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Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.


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