Fear is a much-disliked emotion. Humans try to avoid it if at all possible. But what is this thing we call fear, and how might we harness it constructively?
OUR BIOLOGICAL PAST
Think of a species evolving. What we call evolution is simply developing over generations, with members of a species that behave in one way dying, and members who behave in another way surviving. Simplified, but essentially what happens.
Imagine a group of people growing up with no sense of what to avoid. They eat all the wrong things, even poisonous things; they put themselves in the way of being eaten by dangerous animals; they walk over cliffs... anything dangerous, and this group of people ignores it, and walks into it as though it were nothing.
A happy group of people it may be! But you can't argue with the fact that they might end up becoming extinct. If enough of them meet up with danger and receive a bad deal from it, without learning why danger is a problem, then there will be none of them left.
This illustrates the beginnings of fear. Fear is the emotion that causes us to draw back from possible danger. Even micro-species seem to have this response built in. It is incredibly advantageous to have a natural response of withdrawing when you are near danger.
But there is something even better than this instinctive withdrawal response. What if, instead of having to wait to be in the proximity of danger, a group of people can learn an emotional aversion reaction when there is even a distant sniff of danger? Instead of having to wait until risk is imminent, this group of people sees danger coming at a distance, and takes aversive action very early.
This is the origin of our fear response. Groups of animals, and groups of humans, avoided death because they were hard-wired to be averse to risk. They even had slightly too much of it, so that they had some spare, unused fear of the unknown which wasn't allocated to any particular risk, but was just experienced as a general existential anxst.
This is the nature you have evolved with. Because your other ancestors died, your lineage includes millions of forbears who were afraid (experienced a deeply-felt aversion to possible danger) much of the time. It is no use wishing you weren't afraid: fear is hard-wired into your system. You learn to walk the pavements and keep away from possible traffic; to eat your normal food and keep away from possible poisons; to relate to your friends and keep away from possible enemies.
THE POSITIVE SIDE
The above illustrates the positive side of the fear you experience: it has stopped your ancestors, for generation after generation, from dying. It is, quite literally, the reason you are here. Without it, you would have to work out, painstakingly and logically, and without motivation, what actions to take to avoid mortal danger. You would not see why you shouldn't damage your neighbours and be destructive; you would be missing a key socialising force - fear of the consequences of stepping out of line. Fear plays a part in your social conscience: it keeps you on your guard, consistently obedient, law-abiding, social, kind. It is not your only motivator, but it is an important one, and one it is hard to un-wire from your system.
THE NEGATIVE SIDE
The bad news is that you are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Social life nowadays does not require us to worry about predators around every corner. If our society provides a minimum of protection, then we can go about our lives without the likelihood of falling prey to danger.
However, try telling your brain that. Your brain was developed thousands and thousands of years ago, and is kind of designed for a more dangerous environment than you now experience. But you live a safe life. Most of us are not going to die tomorrow from lurking danger. Put these two things together (a risk-averse brain, and an unrisky environment), and what you have is spare fear wandering around wondering what to do with itself.
Put numerically, modern life has a danger quotient of 2/10, and your brain is wired for a danger quotient of 6/10. You have 4 points-worth of brain-wiring which is unnecessarily fearful.
How you experience this will change through life, depending on your age, your upbringing, and your internal messaging system. But most people, at one time or another, will have an internal feeling that goes something like:
'I feel unnecessarily worried about everything, full of an unnameable fear that is hard to express. I wake up afraid, am averse to going out and socialising. I just want to curl up into a ball, be in my safe place, and ignore the world for a while. Don't make me go out there. I feel it's all dangerous, even though I know intellectually that many things I fear can't really hurt me.'
THE LOGIC OF FEAR
This is entirely logical when you think over millions of years. Your brain is part of a development process that is a natural response to the environment, and those who were not like you died years and years ago. You're a survivor. But you're still experiencing the trauma of danger millions of years ago. You are worried about things that stopped happening literally ages ago.
Here are three suggestions as to how to use your fear for constructive purposes:
- MEDITATE - Sit and listen to your brain. Notice it worrying on overdrive. If you sit for long enough, just listening, you will notice your whole being relaxing as it comes to understand, more and more, that your fear is useless, and not founded in the present. You are participating in the human race growing up. You are becoming less fearful. Good on you.
- INVOLVE YOURSELF IN CREATIVE ACTIVITY - Creative work is great for mopping up spare fear. Here's why: instead of worrying about monsters round the corner, you become concerned about correcting anomales in your creative work. You work harder to iron out the problems, to anticipate them and overcome them. In other words, you have found a safe battleground to use up your fear-emotion constructively.
- TEST OUT YOUR FEARS CONSTRUCTIVELY - Cognitive Behavioural Therapists know this trick. What you do is: 1. Identify and name one of the fears that haunts you; 2. Develop a test to see whether it is a valid worry; 3. Review your results. Most of the time, you will find that your fear is irrational. You kind of knew that anyway, but it stops your fear growing monsters in your mind: you have found a way to test out the monsters, and prove they don't exist.
In summary, then, fear is something you were born with. It's not abnormal; it's the natural response your species has used to get so far. Unfortunately, your generation has been left with far more fear than it needs. You can learn to play with this extra fear you don't need: if you dare, you can sit with it and watch it until it's effect lessens and you master it (more or less what is meant by mindfulness); you can find it a harmless channel in creative work; or, if you want to, you can become your own cognitive scientist, and go about proving to your mind that its fear module is overactive and needs putting in its place. All these methods can be a lot of fun, and are infinitely preferable to letting fear get the upper hand.
Enjoying testing it all out.