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Feeling Fear: Is It A Trick or a Treat? 

Scary movies, haunted houses, creepy crawlies that go bump in the night…yes, please! If you’re like me, you enjoy a good scare. The anticipation as you wander through the haunted house, knowing that someone – or something – is waiting to jump out at you at any second. Startles and screams followed by laughter, a delightful release. In a controlled, realistically safe situation, feeling fear can be fun – a real treat, if you will. 

If you’re not like me in this regard, that’s ok. Lots of people hate scary movies and rollercoasters and the like. The reality is, lots of people truly hate the feeling of fear itself, even when it’s intentional, even when they know it’s a trick, that there’s no real danger present. Honestly, that makes a lot of sense. By design, anxiety is unpleasant. It’s our body’s built in warning system, created to keep us safe and alive. Our heart rate goes up, we go into fight or flight mode. Fear is an intense human emotion with strong physical symptoms that, even when there is no actual threat, is incredibly uncomfortable. It feels so icky so that we’re highly motivated to get rid of it by avoiding or escaping and, by doing so, returning to safety and security. 

This is an excellent feature when it comes to avoiding car accidents or dangerous situations, but fear can also hold us back from taking physically safe but socially or emotionally uncomfortable steps, like being vulnerable, going for a big goal, or making a change.

It keeps us alive. It holds us back. It can be fun. It can be awful. It’s a trick AND a treat, depending on the situation.

Understanding the Fear System 

Fine tuning your relationship with fear and anxiety is one of the most empowering tasks to take on. Learning to be open in the face of it – to venture boldly into those real and metaphorical haunted houses, is a life expanding move. And to get there, you have to know what you’re working with. You have to understand the ins and outs of our fear system.

Here’s some interesting info to know. The part of our brain that is primarily responsible for fear and anxiety (the limbic system, with its superstar the amygdala), continually scans looking for signs that indicate potential threat. Unfortunately, anxiety can’t tell the difference between real and imagined threats. When we watch scary movies or go through those haunted corn mazes, we’re capitalizing on that fact. We experience the fear response even though we’re not truly in danger. It’s a brain trick…and a treat for those of us who enjoy it.

Here’s where it gets interesting to think about. We have another part of our brain that is capable of imagining, right? We daydream, speculate, plan, anticipate. We worry. That’s just imagining possible bad things that can happen, almost like an internal private horror movie. And our adorably strong but primitive anxiety system can’t tell the difference, so it sounds the alarms. 

Think about it, if those things you worry about were actually happening, it would make complete sense to feel anxious or afraid, wouldn’t it? And you’d be well-served to let anxiety guide your decisions and do what you need to avoid or escape those bad things. But they’re not happening in the outside world. They’re only happening in your inside world. You’re imagining it. And your anxiety system is responding, just like it does to a scary movie or haunted house. The difference here, though, is that you may not realize what’s happening, and that makes the anxiety feel real and meaningful. These mental scenarios mean danger!

Nope. It’s a trick!

Don’t Fall for Fear’s Tricks 

This year as I watch my first Michael Meyers movies (yes, I somehow made it to middle age without ever seeing one), when I feel scared, I’ll tell myself it’s just a movie, and I’ll take comfort in that. I’ll even enjoy the sensations of fear as I experience them. I’ll laugh at my exaggerated startle response and giggle at my gasps because I know I’m safe and that this is all just for fun. I 100% believe that anxiety is not bad, that it can be helpful sometimes.

And when your mind starts playing whatever scary movie it loves to give you, tell yourself something similar. Say, “That’s just the You’re Going to Get Fired movie or the Someone is Going to Get Sick story or the Everyone Will Get Mad at Me saga.” Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel anxious. That it’s just a trick.

Interested in Learning More? 

Check out this episode of the Building Psychological Strength podcast episode.

Episode 150: Break Free from Anxiety

 
 
“I think being fearless is having fears but jumping anyways.”
—Taylor Swift
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The Brain Science Behind Fear

Understanding the science of fear and how the brain interacts with threats is relevant now more than ever.

As you know, cases of COVID-19 are beginning to rise in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world, and naturally, many people are experiencing some fear. Will I get sick? Will my family get sick? How bad will our case be if we do get sick? These are all scary questions to contemplate right now.

Outside of the pandemic, concerns of terror attacks, political turmoil, and the health of the planet, compound everyday irrational fears like a fear of flying or spiders.

The Brain Science of Fear

Fear is an interesting thing. It’s awful to experience fear, but it’s actually very adaptive. It’s our minds’ best tool to do its #1 job: keep us safe and alive.

Out of all the brain regions, one of the key areas of the brain involved in fear is the amygdala. This area of the brain is evolutionarily old, it runs nearly automatically, and it goes into overdrive in situations that are unfamiliar to us. Many of you know this area as being responsible for your fight or flight response. 

When this area of your brain lights up due to a perceived dangerous situation, it can cause your heart rate to increase, blood pressure to rise, and the release of stress hormones. Repeatedly having your amygdala triggered can cause quite a bit of discomfort or even lead to anxiety disorders. 

Sounds a lot like what’s happening right now, doesn’t it?

The amygdala LOVES familiarity. Routine. Predictability. These characteristics are a signal of safety. So, when things get unfamiliar, unpredictable, when we deviate from our routine, the amygdala flips the panic switch, makes our heart rate go up, and leads to the fear and anxiety response all of us are so familiar with.

Now here’s the thing. Normally, we would tell you to counter the amygdala’s automatic fear response by using a more deliberative or intentional part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex.

Normally we would ask you to intentionally and systematically appraise your fear to help balance out your thinking. In most cases, that leads us to realize that, even though the situation we’re in seems scary to the amygdala, there really isn’t an actual threat out there. We can sort of rationalize our way into being a bit calmer when we aren’t actually facing dangerous activity. 

Here’s the kicker: there is a real threat these days. The virus is real, and it’s spreading. So, not only is your amygdala on an overdrive roller coaster right now… You’re outside of your normal daily routine, you’re likely feeding it a diet of news and social media, the future seems uncertain…all the things your amygdala HATES. But, your prefrontal cortex can point at actual evidence that a threat exists. 

So now what?!

In times like these, we would still ask you to balance your thinking using deliberate, intentional thought processes. 

The news focuses on extreme, salient cases where people had very bad outcomes because that’s what sells. That’s not an accurate representation of the virus, as a whole. A common-sense approach to the actual threat level is the best we can hope for but it’s hard to drown out the noise.

Dr. Ashley’s post last week touched on the importance of appraising the problem that’s in front of you right now rather than trying to predict the future. People enjoy feeling in control, and when you take the time to appraise the problem, your sense of control will return. 

But beyond that, here’s one more technique you can use: become more of an observer of your own thoughts. Put some psychological distance between you, the core human being that you are, and the thoughts you’re aware of. 

By taking the position of the observer, you’re distancing yourself from the rumination and emotion that can come from our thoughts, particularly when we’re afraid. 

I know that sounds easier said than done, but with dedicated practice, it can be done!

Build Your Psych Strength

At Peak Mind, we are dedicated to helping you build your psych strength. We have free resources, like our podcast as well as digital programs, like ASCEND, our comprehensive psych strength building program. Inside of ASCEND, you’ll develop the skills to see your thoughts as thoughts, rather than getting wrapped up in them – and so much more! This is such an uncertain and difficult time for many people, but psychological research shows us that it is possible to THRIVE through adversity. We want to help you do just that.