What is fear and how do we control it?

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

Fear. I encourage you to think about that word and what it means to you.

Maybe it means monsters under your bed, the dark and the foreign sound you hear in an empty house. Maybe it means heights, public speaking and being alone. Or maybe it means leaving your house, your bed, your safe place.

Whatever it means to you, we all experience fear at some point in our lives and that is completely normal. In fact, it’s healthy to feel fear, it means your body is working properly. It is an intrinsic biological instinct and it is there to keep us alive.

Believe it or not, that sudden lurch you feel when you tip your chair too far back is your body saying “You need to act in order to survive.” If you didn’t feel that, you’d keep leaning back and probably have cracked your head open by now – not good news.

If you didn’t feel any fear, you’d walk out in front of moving cars, jump from tall heights and generally do some rather stupid things leading to your untimely demise rather too quickly.

In purely biological terms, your brain and body use this fear mechanism to keep you alive long enough to mate and create offspring – if you didn’t do this, the species would not be successful and would most likely become extinct. As a result, over thousands of years of evolution, natural selection has favoured members with a strong fear impulse because they are the ones who, when faced with danger, either fight or run.

This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response and is triggered by what’s called the ‘reptilian brain’, according to Paul McLean’s Truine Brain theory. The theory goes that over time two additional parts of the brain  evolved and formed themselves over the reptilian brain. These are called the limbic (mammalian) or neurocortex (neo-mammalian) parts of the brain, and are what enable humans to function in a more complex, emotional and self-aware manner.

As a result, it remains the part of your brain that controls a large number of your subconscious functions and primary survival instincts, including the aforementioned response. It, in essence, overrides the other two brains when in danger and triggers the sudden, irrational need to either run or fight the perceived threat.

The modern-day conundrum that most people, especially those with anxiety disorders, face is that the reptilian brain still operates as though almost every possible ‘danger’ is a serious threat when actually, that ‘danger’ might just be stressful deadlines or noisy traffic.

Your neocortex knows this and your limbic system helps tell you that you’re safe but very often, this well-hidden, primitive part of the brain overpowers any logical and emotional reassurance. This is why you feel so confused and out of control when experiencing fear, anxiety and panic – in many ways you really are out of control.

But you don’t have to succumb to it.

It may sound clichéd, but the process of learning to accept and quieten this response is one of the single most valuable things I have learnt on my mental health journey. (I plan to do a blog post covering some techniques that I have found to be useful at a later date)

Understanding why I think, feel and act the way that I do has helped me immeasurably in accepting and forgiving myself for something that I didn’t cause and that I have been dealing with in the best way I know how.

Educating myself on my condition in this way has helped me very slowly learn to show a greater capacity for self-compassion and has taught me that pushing myself too hard simply isn’t worth the illness it feeds.

For the first time, I believe that, in many ways, my abilities to feel happiness and quieten fear  are improving, and I want to share that in the hope of helping others.

For the first time, I feel inspired to write about the challenges I and so many others face, in a positive manner.

We all have dark days but as long as we equip ourselves with the knowledge and techniques to get through them, there’s no reason that we can’t begin to feel that little bit better. And for me, knowing that is already a huge (but frightening) step in the right direction.


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