Among the most universal and primal of all emotions, there is scarcely one among us who hasn’t felt its presence. Perhaps this is why we seldom like to discuss it, at least when it comes to addressing our own fears.
Subjectively speaking, there is nothing pleasant about the experience of fear. Men especially are all too familiar with the discomfort of acknowledging, even to themselves, that there are things in the world that they fear, and this discomfort is never more acutely felt than when the objects of their fears are other men.
Notice, while it is neither possible nor desirable to rid ourselves of fear, it most certainly is possible to manage it—and to use it to make ourselves into better, stronger, happier people.
The first and most fundamental step toward managing fear is to acknowledge its presence within us.
The second step is to recognize that while there most certainly is an ineliminable, and quite profound, psychological component to fear, its physical component is no less significant, for fear is felt within the body. And it is often felt acutely, intensely. This being the case, to manage our fear, we must come to terms with its nature.
The experience of fear originates in the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of nuclei located in the temporal lobe of the brain that processes our emotions. When we encounter something that, say, frightens us, the amygdala activates. When it activates, it initiates activity in the hypothalamus, which in turn triggers the pituitary gland, the juncture at which the nervous and endocrine or hormone systems intersect.
It is at this point that the pituitary gland emits the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), the hormone that at once stimulates the adrenal cortex and provokes the body into releasing cortisol. The sympathetic nervous system—the system responsible for the “fight-or-flight response”—engages the adrenal gland and the latter injects epinephrine (or adrenaline) into the blood.
Cortisol, in addition to increasing blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells, transforms fatty acids into the repository of energy for the muscles should a person decide to fight or flee.
The catecholamines of epinephrine, or adrenalin—a neurotransmitter which increases blood flow to the heart, lungs, and muscles—and norepinephrine or noradrenalin—the neurotransmitter that increases a person’s heart rate and blood pressure—prime the body so as to make it as efficient and effective as possible in the event that violent action is necessary to combat the threat.
Yet making it as efficient and effective as possible to ward off a threat means that those processes that are necessary for immediate survival are ratcheted up, while those that aren’t essential in the short-term are arrested. These “fear” hormones just mentioned dramatically diminish the workings of the gastrointestinal system, the digestive system, for the latter is not vital for the amount of time that it will take for a person to address a threat. This explains the queasiness, “the butterflies,” that people experience in their stomachs when they are nervous, stressed, and fearful.
This as well leads to the “dry mouth” sensation that we experience while in a state of fear, for the salivary glands belong to the digestive system.
This is the physical phenomena constitutive of fear. Yet the modern study of fear confirms that its experience is no less intellectual or psychological. Two psychiatrists who co-authored an article that The Smithsonian Magazine reprinted note that “some of the main chemicals that contribute to the ‘fight or flight’ response are also involved in other positive emotional states, such as happiness and excitement.” What they claim to have found throughout their own research, including their clinical interactions with patients, is that “what makes the difference between getting a ‘rush’ and feeling completely terrorized” is a rational assessment of “context.” They write:
“When our ‘thinking’ brain gives feedback to our ‘emotional’ brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that high arousal state, going from one of fear to one of enjoyment or excitement.”
To paraphrase the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, context is king. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex engage in a complex, higher-order level of processing the context of a potential threat in order to determine whether it is an actual threat (see also here for the decisive role of context vis-à-vis fear). For example, if one were in the Arctic and somehow came within feet of a polar bear, one’s response would be dramatically different than one’s response to observing a polar bear in an exhibit at a zoo. Obviously, what accounts for these two radically different responses is an awareness of the radical difference between the one situation and the other.
Fear in and of itself isn’t necessarily a choice, but how a person experiences fear and the manner in which he or she chooses to respond to it most certainly are choices. As such, these choices, as Aristotle correctly noted several centuries before Christ, possess both rational and moral value. A person who walks right up to a polar bear in the wild and thumps it in the nose is irrational in that he experiences, in Aristotle’s terminology, a “deficiency” of fear. As such, he has the vice, the character weakness, of recklessness. Similarly, though, a person who is overcome by fear upon seeing a polar bear encased in a zoo exhibit is no less irrational. The only difference is that the latter has an “excess” of fear and suffers from the vice, or character weakness, of cowardice.
Both individuals are irrational inasmuch as they misinterpret or otherwise fail to attend to the contextual considerations that distinguish whether a threat is imaginary or whether it is real.
The presence of fear in itself in a person is nothing for which he or she should be ashamed. Fear is at once necessary and desirable, for fear alerts us to danger and mobilizes us to preserve our lives. In the absence of fear, the human species (along with every other whose members experience fear) would have long ago become extinct.
Neither, in itself, is fear something deserving of praise. Rather, the circumstances—the how, when, why, whom, and what—regarding a person’s fear determine whether it is reasonable and, thus, commendable. It is the person who has habituated him or herself through education to know how to assess context and differentiate irrational fears from reasonable ones who distinguishes him or herself.
More in the future on this all-too neglected, but ubiquitous, phenomenon called “fear.” For now, however, we should be encouraged, empowered, by knowing the fact that fear is manageable, and, once controlled, supplies an invaluable and even unique resource by which we can accomplish physical feats in the cause of self-protection and the protection of innocents that would otherwise remain the stuff of fantasy.
First and most fundamentally, though, we must come to terms with the blunt truth that we do indeed possess fear. Then, we should study it, as we began doing here. These are two essential steps toward managing fear.
Finally, we must train to own fear—rather than permit fear to own us.
But that’s for a later essay.