We live in a fearful world. Stop for a minute and think about how you experience “fear.” Remember a time when you were afraid. Maybe you were being attacked by a bloodthirsty, pop culture pirate? Probably not (yeah, that’s me with the sword).
I’ve had many of those fearful moments:
- that little hitch right before stepping in front of an audience, even though I’ve done it thousands of times
- the moment when I decided to leave the safest job in the world, as an academic climbing the tenure track, for the risky life of an entrepreneur
- when I’m about to close a mission critical deal that my company depends on
- the split second before that speeding car t-boned me and rolled me down the highway
- looking out the open door of an airplane, three miles up, as I contemplate that first step
- staring down the barrel of a loaded gun
- watching my wife wheeled away for a desperate, last minute surgery
- holding my young son, spurting blood from an injury, as we made a mad dash for the ER
- the moments when, without warning, my legs stop working and I know I’m headed for the ground
Those flashbulb memories are implanted in my head, as vivid now as when they occurred. We all carry our own. They’re a consequence of life. They’re stamped into our brains with a powerful rush of hormones and emotions.
We think of “fear” as our bodily reaction:
- breathing becomes fast and shallow
- heart beats faster and blood pressure rises
- sweating begins
- blood sugar rises
- immune system repressed
- body flushed with hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol)
- emotions heightened
- attention narrowed to the stimulus
- higher-level cognition short circuited
- strong urge to do something…anything!
Physical and emotional arousal is managed by our primal brains (the brainstem and the limbic system). All of these things happen before you’re even aware of them and have the chance to decide that you are, indeed, “afraid.” Your brain and body are already responding before your mind joins the conversation.
We’re always at some level of arousal when we’re awake, but the strongest arousal response is an overwhelming motivation to drop everything else, pay attention, and act now! But this is not “fear.” It’s the upper limit of physical and emotional “arousal.” Arousal usually happens for four reasons:
- New information is salient: it stands out from the background.
- New information is surprising: it violates what we expected.
- A stimulus looks like a known threat: it’s similar to a pattern we’ve already labeled as “threatening.”
- We are somehow pushed to the edge of our capacities: we’re near (or past) what we feel we’re able to deliver in that moment.
Our primal brains only know one response: amp up all systems — just in case it’s an immediate threat to life or limb! But we’ve created a much more complex environment than our ancestors inhabited and that same arousal response is triggered in less than helpful ways. We try to make do, and our minds must learn to interpret that same response in many ways.
For our bodies and brains, arousal is an all-purpose tool to get us ready for action. It may or may not be threatening, immediate, or even an event we can do something about. Our systems tend to err on the side of safety: for simple, immediate, occasional tasks, it’s better to be too amped up than not enough.
When arousal is triggered, it’s not always negative or an emergency. It’s not always fear or anxiety. It could be excitement or a joyous surprise. It may even be a real threat, but not of the immediate, dangerous kind that our extreme arousal response can prepare us for.
You don’t want to live without fear. You want to live with appropriate fear.
The next time you feel “fear,” use the pause. In the split second before we realize we fear anything, there’s a pause and a decision. It usually goes unnoticed. Train yourself to notice. In that expectant moment, we’re perched on an emotional knife-edge and could go either way. Maybe you are being charged by a bloodthirsty pirate or a saber-toothed tiger, so get scared and run! Probably not.
I don’t care how many times I do it, when I stand at the open door of an airplane, there’s a biochemical rush that explodes in my brain. There’s real risk (it’s a long way down), but it’s not yet fear. This is the pause before the judgment. Learn to recognize it and understand that this isn’t fear — what comes after could be, but you get to make that decision. (And you can, with patience and practice.)
Recognize that you’re aroused for action, then take that beat to figure out why (remember those four reasons). You’re not necessarily afraid or anxious, just aroused. Recognizing that response for what it is — a primitive emotional and physical preparation for intense action in the face of an immediate threat — is the first step toward managing and directing those fears that don’t quite fit our modern lives.