Heart pounding, palms sweaty. You approach the podium, 50 people staring back at you, waiting to hear the speech you’ve been working on for months. Your mind goes blank, staring into empty faces, unable to find the words.
The movie plays on the big screen in front of you, but your focus is on the door that continuously slams open and shut. You fight an impulse to examine those entering, wondering if they were here before, or if they are acting suspicious. Are they just movie-goers, or something else?
Standing in the corner of a party, with people you’ve never met, in a place you’ve never been. The friends you arrived with are nowhere to be found. You wonder if they left without you, you wonder if they even like you enough to remember not to leave without you.
Fear is as basic to human nature as our need for food and water. It’s a matter of survival, guiding our behavior to avoid danger; we work to avoid feeling the uncomfortableness associated with fear. We strive to avoid uneasiness and to avoid the horrors of what we hear about on the news every day. Our amygdala, where fear is controlled in the brain, are bombarded day in and day out with perceived threats to our safety and well-being. But, are these threats and the responses they arouse key to our survival? In truth, they may be doing more harm than good.
In the distant past, perceived threats created physical and chemical responses in the human body. Cortisol levels spike in the bloodstream, creating an increased heart rate and alertness, sweaty palms and the shutting down of certain biological functions that are not necessary for immediate survival. Blood flows in larger amounts to our muscles, preparing us for quick movements. Today, perceived threats still cause the same physical reaction, but there is one key difference. The perceived threats that trigger our fear response today are much different than they were thousands of years ago.
Think about a list of things that make you feel nervous and increase your heart rate during a normal day. These factors could include things like public speaking, meeting new people, taking an exam or starting a new job. Most people would agree that these are fear-inducing situations, but how do they compare to the threats ancient humans faced? Our fear response was designed to trigger action during times of attack, or when hunting in dangerous conditions. This fear response allowed for a quick impulse of fight, flight or freeze. This mechanism is our body’s auto-pilot mode: thought and decision no longer dictate actions—it is purely impulse.
So, every time we experience fear – say because we have to do a presentation for class – we are experiencing a reaction meant to be in response to a life-threatening situation. But, in reality, there is no immediate danger. It’s pretty simple to quantify that this is not a good thing for our minds, or our bodies.
Chronic fear and anxiety leads to a plethora of physical issues, including negative effects on the cardiovascular system as well as the digestive system. It can lead to a weakened immune system, as well as memory issues. It is incredibly negative for mental health, as it can impair a person’s memory and decrease their ability to regulate and process fear in the future.
Equipped with the expansive knowledge we now know about the negative consequences of fear and worry, why do we have a mass population of people constantly trying to slow down their speeding heartbeat and wiping their palms on their jeans every five seconds? The problem is that on top of real fears – i.e., being scared of a truck that doesn’t appear to be slowing down while you’re crossing the street – we also have unreal fears. Unreal fears are simply ideas that we create in our heads, or fears that stem from overthinking about the future. They are not immediate dangers, and are often unrealistic. Our brains and bodies cannot differentiate between real and unreal fears, and they cause the same bodily reactions regardless. Additionally, top chronic fear inhibits your ability to regulate future fears, and increases your fear overall. Fear becomes our natural state.
The central approach to decrease fear in your life is to never allow it to hold you back. Exposure therapy is one of the main treatments for phobia disorders, as well as other fear-based disorders. You have to teach yourself that these situations that scare you are not actually threatening in any tangible way. The threat is in your head, not in the real world. The more you put yourself into situations that make you nervous, the more you will be able to dissociate those situations from feelings of fear.
People in the modern world are very much fear-driven and controlled by what-ifs. So many of us never move far away from our hometowns, because the idea of moving to a new place without knowing anyone makes our cortisol levels spike so much that we lose our ability to reason logically. People stay in jobs that no longer make them happy because they are scared they won’t find anything better. People stay in relationships that are not good for them, because the fear of never finding someone else causes them to ignore their doubts. When you allow fear to control you, you live a very small life. Fear traps us into being only a fraction of what we could be, all because of a falsified lie created in our heads.
As Will Smith once said, “God places the best things in life on the other side of terror.”