Fear is a powerful emotion and a useful one. Not good or bad, positive or negative as such, it has its role to play as do all of the emotions and is there to learn from.
The brain’s key role is to keep us away from threat and danger and move us towards safety and reward and it does that by scanning for threats around 5 times per second … on a good day! When it finds information that it reads as a threat, messages are sent all around the body via neurotransmitters to engage the fight/flight, instinctive survival mechanism. It may not be a life-threatening situation, it may just be an altercation with our boss or partner, but our body is ready to deal with it and we make a choice – engage (fight), freeze, appease (placate) or flee (avoid). Once the threat has passed and the fear is gone, our body settles and returns to its ‘normal’ state. Our fear response protects us.
So, feeling the fear is normal and healthy, provided we don’t get stuck in that state and find ourselves constantly re-triggered into almost constant fight/flight/freeze which can happen in the case of PTSD when it seems like the event is forever etched into our cellular memory.
Sometimes our fear is triggered because the situation we are in reminds us (unconsciously) of something from our past which scared us at the time. Or it might be future based, triggered due to uncertainty, not knowing what lies ahead and doubting our ability to get through and overcome any potential obstacles. Then again it could be due to having done something before which didn’t go well, perhaps we felt we’d failed, and the experience shaped a belief in us that the same will happen again.
Apparently, we are born with only two fears, fear of loud noises and fear of falling, the rest are learned from experience. According to an article in Psychology Today in May 2008, ‘our most common fears are of snakes, bugs, mice, bats, heights and water’ and for some they may become full-blown phobias. Some people are naturally more fearful than others and it can be due to where and how we were reared and what we became used to.
My own example of the ‘where’ is fear of the dark because I grew up close to London in a suburban area with streetlights; I wasn’t totally aware that this was a problem until I was travelling on my own and was walking along a path in dense jungle in Sumatra when I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. My examples of ‘how’ was that my mother hated going to the dentist (she had dentures while still quite young) and as children we felt that. The same was true of water in relation to swimming, she didn’t like water and was a poor swimmer so again we felt that and I’m still not that confident in the water.
Is that inherited? Not really but I would say it’s likely to be a huge influence. If our primary carer carries a certain set of fears from their own experiences then they may be reluctant to introduce or encourage their child to engage in certain activities which can set up a similar fear in the child.
I guess what I’m suggesting is that whether our fears are our own, shaped by own experiences or influenced by the experience of others is not necessarily a problem except that, as I wrote earlier, fear (wherever it comes from) can keep us stuck and stop us from fully engaging and enjoying all that life has to offer.
Although it’s not our intention, it’s important to recognise that our own fear(s) can have a huge impact on those around us in a negative way; an overly protective parent or carer may unknowingly be building a fearful adult. What we choose to read or hear and come to believe in relation to world news and events can easily set up the fear response in us which ripples out to those with whom we interact.
If we are able to recognise our own fears and see them for what they are – a survival response which may be inappropriate at times – then we are able to identify the triggers and take the opportunity to evaluate and work through them.