Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor
When we explore emotions in greater depth and bypass their unfavourable connotations, we come to appreciate their wisdom and value. From an evolutionary perspective, fear has helped us survive and even thrive as a species. The fear of death and loss of health, for instance, is a tremendous motivator to stay alive, as well as an excellent reminder of how important it is to invest in a healthy lifestyle, or not to engage in violent behaviour. An increasing sense of self-preservation – highlighted by the emotional significance of fear – has allowed us to prioritise and value life, avoiding practices that threaten our peace and security. If you are interested in boosting emotional confidence, congruence and intimacy, this article will help you refresh your knowledge and recognise the significance of fear.
The role of fear
Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing, be it physical or emotional. The fear reflex is there to protect us from any type of danger, be it real or imaginary. Because of our ability to feel fear, we are able to protect ourselves from things, animals, people (even ourselves) and situations that expose us to harm to our minds, bodies or relationships. As fear is not only an automatic response to danger, but a learned behaviour, it also depends on direct instruction or experience to gain greater significance in our lives. For that reason, we are more inclined to feeling fearful towards what we have learned to fear, be it from our parents’ stories, cultural values or past events that were unpleasant in any way and, as a result, secured their places in our memory network.
Feelings related to fear
Anxiety, distress, apprehension, tension, horror and panic, for instance, are all fear states. We often forget when worrying excessively, for instance, that we, essentially, fear someone, a certain situation or outcome.
How fear is felt in the body
The fear response is a product of the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system or “emotional brain”. The amygdala is responsible for getting you physiologically ready to deal with threats, in other words, to fight an enemy, fly the scene or freeze on the spot. As you can notice below, the most common bodily sensations associated with fear can be connected to those three basic fear responses:
- Fast heartbeat
- Short breathing
- Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
- Shaking, trembling
- Dry mouth
Adaptive and maladaptive fear
Fear is adaptive when it is productive. Stereotypically, productive fear raises our awareness of potentially life threatening situations, such as standing too close to the edge of a cliff. Maladaptive fear, on the other hand – even when it arises, initially, from a healthy fear response such as escape and avoidance – is exaggerated and pathological, such as the one felt by sufferers of anxiety disorders. This last modality causes much more harm than good, compromising psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing.
What your fears say about you
As fear is also a learned behaviour, it is deeply connected to the views we hold of ourselves, the world and others – our core beliefs. When those core beliefs are rigid and lead to automatic thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, such as “all-or-nothing” and “catastrophizing”, for instance, they exaggerate the relevance or probability of negative outcomes, making one more vigilant and susceptible to feeling fearful. This heightened state of alert leads to feelings of unsafety, inadequateness and insecurity, which interfere with one’s ability to function with confidence, be it in a social, academic or professional scenario. If you often feel easily affected or even overwhelmed by excessive worrying, anxiety or a constant need for reassurance, it is probably time to check in with yourself and re-evaluate the core beliefs that are at the root your fear. Rigid core beliefs such as, “It is shameful to make mistakes”, “If I do not worry, something bad will happen”, “The world is a dangerous place” and “I cannot trust others” are renowned for making one feel powerless and afraid.
The best way to deal with fear is not to repress it through denial or disguise it as anger, but befriend it with honesty. You can embrace your fear by admitting it (even if only to yourself), respecting its wisdom and learning a little more about yourself from it. Even when uncomfortable and maladaptive, fear tells us something about our vulnerabilities and warns us of areas that need our attention. Above all, facing our fears reminds us of the limitations of our humanity and promotes growth and development, allowing us to live more fulfilling and rewarding lives.