Fear Is Natural, But You Can Be Super-Natural
You can redirect your natural fear impulse if you understand it.
Posted June 18, 2020
Fear is natural. Most people end up fearful, so if you follow others, fear will fill your life. You can free yourself from fear by trusting your own judgment instead of following others. This is hard for so many reasons:
1. We mirror others.
We reproduce the emotions of those around us. Animals run when their herd mates run, and they get eaten if they don’t. Natural selection built a brain good at panicking when others panic. It’s hard to see that you’re doing it, and you are powerless over this impulse if you can’t see it. If you make a habit of noticing it, you find your power to redirect it.
2. We bond when we feel threatened.
Animals stick with the herd when a predator lurks, and spread out when things look safe. Humans also stick together when there’s a common enemy. Leaders often keep their groups together by alarming them with talk of common enemies. It’s hard to feel safe when your herd is always in a state of alarm. In fact, if you don’t share their sense of alarm, they may consider you a traitor. It’s tempting to share their sense of threat because solidarity feels good.
3. We’re aware of our own mortality.
Much of your brain is focused on survival, but the future-oriented part of your brain knows that you will fail to survive someday. We terrorize ourselves with this knowledge. You don’t know what will kill you, so you’re alert for every possible threat. We have inherited a brain designed to scan constantly for potential threats and to respond with a life-or-death sense of urgency. So as soon as you relieve one threat, your brain finds another. You could spend your whole life feeling like your survival is threatened unless you learn to notice this thought loop and redirect it. You can learn to trust your own survival skills instead of feeling overwhelmed by every whiff of threat.
4. Experience wires us to trust the alarm signals of others.
The connections you build in childhood become the superhighways of your brain in adulthood. Children need the fears of others to avoid getting run over or electrocuted. We absorb the fears of those around us, and they of course have absorbed the fears of their childhood. You may object to the fears you grew up with, but your brain relies on the neural pathways it has built. You will repeat those old fears unless you focus on building new pathways.
5. Isolation feels like an immediate survival threat.
An animal gets eaten if it’s separated from the herd. We have inherited a brain that sees isolation as a survival threat. This is why you follow the herd, as much as you’d rather not. You may reject one herd, but you follow another. You do not consciously fear being eaten alive, but your brain can make it feel that way by turning on the cortisol.
6. Cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm.
Your brain releases cortisol when it sees a pattern similar to a past threat. Cortisol makes an animal run when it smells a predator. It alerts the animal to look for details so it knows which way to run. You look for details once your cortisol turns on. You are good at finding details when you look, which leads to more cortisol and more threat scanning. You can end up in a cortisol spiral, and you take it as proof of real danger. Cortisol works by making you feel so bad that you do what it takes to make it stop. This is why tiny reminders of past threats can trigger a full-body sense of alarm without your conscious intent.
You have a lot of reasons to follow the herd.
It’s hard to feel safe when everyone around you feels threatened. It’s hard to trust your own judgment and easy to presume they know better. But you will spend your whole life in fear if you do that.
Fortunately, you have a choice.
You are always choosing where you invest your energy. You are free to focus on rewards instead of threats. That stimulates your happy chemicals instead of your threat chemicals.
That seems risky, of course. What if there’s a real threat and you miss it? What if others call you a traitor when you fail to share their pain?
These are real risks, but you can weigh them against the risk of wasting your life in fear.
You may think it’s hard to stop fear once you try. It's easier when you know that much of fear is learned. You can learn to feel safe with practice, like any other skill.
Learning to feel safe is like learning a foreign language. It’s hard, yet people do it every day. Repetition is what it takes. Repetition is how you learned your native language, and it's also how you learned your fear patterns. With repetition, you can wire yourself to feel safe just like you can wire in a foreign language.
Step one is to target the safe thoughts you want to have and reward yourself for repeating them. Soon, safe thoughts will feel as natural as threatened thoughts. Now you have a choice.
Does this seem fake? That could be because your old pathways are telling you that negative thoughts are more real. A positive lens is not necessarily a bias — it can be a correction for your negative bias.
Does this seem selfish? Bonding with others around shared threats is a shortcut; you can create new ways to bond.
Does this seem dangerous? You may think you cannot feel safe until the world is perfect. But animals live in a world of predators, and they must go out to avoid starving. Your ancestors lived in a dangerous world, but went out and met their needs. Today, your belly is probably full, so you could spend your life hiding from predators. But you can go out and enjoy the world as it is instead.
More on this in my books, Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness and The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry.