We have all felt fear on some level. At its weakest, fear is just hesitation. At its strongest, it’s absolute panic and terror.
What situations cause fear?
How do we respond to fear?
Such enquiries are the topic of this post. By the end of it, the hope is for the reader to walk away with a thorough understanding of fear.
BASIC TYPES OF FEAR
There are 4 basic types:
Conscious hesitation may involve one or more of the following concerns:
- Self image
- Demand on energy
- Uncomfortable past memory/instinct about an unfamiliar experience.
- Uncomfortable past memory about a specific type of experience.
In each case, the fear part of it is consciously known.
It’s natural for a child to feel subconscious hesitation. But even in adults, subconscious hesitation does occur. For example, someone may be hesitant to ask the shopkeeper about a product option.
When you’re an adult, subconscious hesitation doesn’t make sense at first. But if the person looked inside, they would find the reason. One possibility is that they feel imprisoned being gay and they keep it a secret. Thus, any engagement with another person feels both disheartening (due to the imprisonment) and risky (due to the need for secrecy).
Generally, after childhood has passed, the main culprits behind subconscious hesitation are lying, hiding and pretense. This is because they make unguarded interactions feel risky and emotionally troubling.
Usually, conscious anticipation means a high stakes win-or-lose situation.
Winning can mean staying comfortable or making a dream come true.
Losing can mean becoming uncomfortable or ending up with a broken dream.
There can be overlap between anticipation and hesitation. Because secrets, lying and hiding can cause many high stakes win-or-lose situations.
Subconscious anticipation happens for the same reasons as conscious anticipation.
When things are scary, we may consciously feel the need to escape.
An example of a scary situation is having to report bad performance to a parent. In fact, there is an example of a scary person here as well. The parent. An example of a scary thought is having to wake up to pain everyday.
Many of us try to escape scary thoughts, people and situations. There are many methods to escape: walking away, distractions, alcohol, drugs, suicide (please don’t) etc.
Subconscious escape can happen in 3 ways:
- Making a habit out of escaping situations.
- Feeling threatened psychologically (for example, by having a dark secret exposed or by having an ugly side of you brought to light).
- Feeling threatened physically (for example, by being held at gunpoint, for instance).
Generally, terror indicates a threat to survival. Kids consciously feel terror when they watch a horror movie. They also consciously feel terror when they face violence at home.
In adulthood, again, conscious terror occurs due to survival threats. The survival threat could be high crime rate in the neighborhood. Or, it could be losing someone without whom life feels dead and miserable.
Terror does not normally occur subconsciously. If it does, then it means there is a clinical problem such as psychosis, post traumatic stress disorder or panic disorder.
Clinically speaking, subconscious terror is usually due to abnormal conditioning. For example, in the case of long-term war veterans and abuse victims. But sometimes it can also be genetic, like in some cases of panic disorder.
That wraps up the basic types of fear. Next, we discuss human response to fear.
HUMAN RESPONSE TO FEAR
Fight or flight
Here, fight means working through the fear. Whereas, flight means running away from the fear.
Most humans are conditioned for flight in the face of terror.
In the case of escape, by definition it’s a flight response.
In the case of anticipation, it could be fight or flight. You may attend the situation and try to resolve the pressure. Or, you may avoid the situation and not deal with the pressure.
The same is true for hesitation. You may face the object of hesitation or avoid it.
Generally, it takes work to train the fight response. The flight response is more natural.
Levels of threat response
There are three levels of fear response:
- Permanent removal
- Temporary management
Dominating the fear means defeating the fear. For example, if there is fear when being attacked by a dog, then dominating the fear would be standing your ground without a flicker of fear even when the dog lunges ferociously at you.
Most wish to dominate fear. The ego wants to feel fearless no matter what the danger. But in reality, domination rarely happens. One rare instance of it is the military instinct to run towards gunfire.
In the end, complete domination of fears is claimed by many, but practiced by few.
2. Permanent removal
The words “permanent” and “removal” are self-explanatory. Permanent removal of fear involves removing the object of fear such that it never happens again. The fear itself remains. Only the object is removed.
Permanent removal can be achieved in 3 ways:
- Preparation (like training in self-defense)
- Avoiding (not ever taking the street that has aggressive dogs)
- Terminating (killing the dog and making sure it never comes up as a threat again)
3. Temporary management
Finally, we have temporary management. When domination and permanent removal are not options, temporary management is used.
For example, when people fear looking “ugly” dominating the fear (stop fearing ugly) or removing the fear (become beautiful somehow) is not an option.
So, they might resort to temporary management, by, say, putting on makeup. This is temporary because, despite the makeup, the fear will remain on some level. It will just be temporarily managed. Sooner or later, it will come back again.
FEAR AND HEALTH
Not all fear is bad. For instance, fear of a tiger is good. It prevents you from being careless around a tiger. A certain degree of fear is therefore not in itself indicative of poor mental health, unless the following problems occur:
Problem 1: Always wanting to dominate fear
People obsess about dominating the fear even when it’s enough to remove or manage it. In many instances, running from fear is not an option. Like when someone needs to know you messed up. Still, you could just remove or manage it by talking it out or giving the other person some time to process. It’s natural to feel fear when you have to tell someone a hard truth. Just talk it out and be patient with the outcome. No need to dominate anything.
If you absolutely have to dominate fear, then the method to do it is to temporarily manage the fear on a routine-basis. This will eventually lead to domination of that fear, in natural course. For example, putting makeup on and then going out regularly in public will eventually lead to not caring about looks in public, even without makeup.
In most cases, fear is perfectly natural. Therefore, generally, one is better off mentally if they stop trying to dominate it, and, instead, just remove or manage it.
Problem 2: Not noticing fear and letting it fester
Except for terror, fear tends to go unnoticed. Hesitation, anticipation and escape, for instance, remain as mostly subconscious behaviors.
If you feel hesitation, anticipation or escape, don’t leave them be. Look inside and bring out the reason. Otherwise, your mental health will deteriorate. Unexplained misery/discomfort in any form, be that fear or something else, is never good for mental health.
Of course, once the reason is known, there is no need to dominate it. It will likely be possible to manage or remove it. But not even knowing the reason. That’s where the danger is.
The trick to recognizing unknown/unexpressed fear is to analyse your attitude towards it. If you are quiet, mildly suicidal, and you privately listen to dark songs about it, then it’s mostly unknown/unexpressed. On the other hand, if you are vocal and animated about it, then it’s adequately known and expressed.
In the end, it’s always better to be consciously aware and expressive of all your fears.
Problem 3: Fear through genetics or abnormal conditioning
Fear through genetics or abnormal conditioning, as in the case of PTSD, panic disorder and psychosis, will have to be dealt with medically. Using psychiatric treatment and psychological therapy.
Generally, fear is good for physical health. Fear of heights, for instance, is good because jumping from heights will probably cause injuries.
But, at times, lack of fear can also be helpful. For example, it has been documented that overcoming fear of death during cancer significantly increases the chance of recovery. This effect is called placebo.
If you somehow manage to get over your fear that a disease will lead to a bad outcome, the chances of physically healing from that disease increase dramatically. This is documented and proven, not just with cancer, but with many other physical ailments as well.
Two ways to put away fears during disease are productive distractions and regular social engagements.
A NOTE ON “FEARLESSNESS”
Look, there is no such thing as “fearlessness.” The term itself is a paradox, because wanting to be fearless means that you are afraid of fear itself.
Nobody can be fearless. They can be ultraprepared in terms of survival and self-defense skills. Or, they can be unafraid of some things. But if anyone claims to be “completely” fearless, then they’re either unaware of the true nature of fear or they’re trying to garner glory/appreciation.
For the most part, fear is natural and healthy. You can learn to remove or manage it. But there is no need to dominate it in every way, and thus be “completely” fearless. At the end of the day, “fearlessness” is a misguided ideal. One that is impossible, unhealthy and unnecessary.
In this post, we had an in-depth discussion on fear. The post is aptly titled fear kills more than disease because it ultimately explains how 1) misguided attempts to dominate fear and 2) lack of attempt to control fear can cause miserable/fatal mental and physical health outcomes. Sound off in the comments about what you think.