What Is Fear?

I subscribe to one of Brian Tracy’s newsletters and in just the first paragraph of his latest missive I was inspired to write a blog post.

The line that got me thinking was: “When Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was saying that the emotion of fear, rather than the reality of what we fear, is what causes us anxiety, stress, and unhappiness. ”

That got me thinking: what is fear, actually? Is it anything beyond our emotions, and perhaps beliefs? When I break it down in my head, fear isn’t actually anything but a combination of thoughts, emotions, beliefs and the resultant body states. I won’t belabor that point here, because I think we can agree that fear really only exists in our mind, and our bodies, if we’re actually feeling afraid.

So, let’s examine the utility , and uses of fear. And, really, ask ourselves to ask Fear: “What have you done for me lately, that I can actually use?”

Fear, and the ability to be afraid is an evolutionary gift. Without it humans probably would have perished. Instead we have flourished (not always to the good, but that’s a topic for another post, or perhaps another blog). Flourished (as a species, that is), how? Because we learned to recognize the things that could hurt us and developed a mechanism to avoid or react to those things. And those among us that were fastest, strongest and most clever survived when others of lesser capacity perished.

What are modern humans left with? An extremely sensitive and effective mechanism for recognizing and preparing for mortal threats. But guess what? Those types of threats, for 99.9% or us, most all of the time, do not exist. We have this amazingly powerful system, that is essentially vestigial.

Remember what Maslow said about only having a hammer? That everything looks like a nail . . . . Well, it’s true, and highly relevant here. Absent some other way to deal with the range of negative (or perhaps better stated: non-desired) events and circumstances — like tuned awareness, emotional intelligence and goal-orientation— we keep getting activated all day, every day.

What do I mean by “activated?” That whenever we encounter something negative, or even just not what we want, we often process it as a threat of some sort. And our primitive “fear response” is activated.  And if you think this isn’t true because you don’t angry or upset over “little” things, ask yourself how much you accept, or resign yourself to, the things you wish were different. The fear response manifests itself both in the fight mode and the flight mode. So if you’re “fleeing” from conflict or non-desired events or things, then it’s just another iteration of the fear response.

To come back to a question I asked earlier, what is the “utility” of fear? If this response, or tendency, is present in our bodies, what use could it be? To be honest, not much. There are occasions where it is helpful to have a surge of powerful stress hormones to be coursing through your body and blood flow to be diverted from your brain to you torso and limbs, but they are few and far between in modern life. Don’t get me wrong, for those times when your life is in danger, or the life of someone close to you hangs in the balance, not thinking and maximizing your potential for physical work is key. But really, how often does that happen?

What we need is increased awareness. The ability to recognize potentially stressful situations and develop the habit of dealing with them intelligently, and effectively. The fear response will still get activated in some situations, to differing degrees, but absent the “tuned awareness” I mentioned above, we will just morph into in-effective blobs of fear — getting mad, or scared, or timid, or . . . .

So if fear is, essentially, just a “thought” our bodies have, then we can think differently. But we’re generally not in the habit of maintaining a level of awareness that allows us to both accurately evaluate our surroundings and happenings and also be engaged in whatever we’re doing. But we can be, with intention and practice.


Here is the full-text of the e-mail article I received from Brian Tracy (it’s worth a read in its entirety):

August 14, 2011

Master Your Fears

By Brian Tracy

Perhaps the greatest challenge you will ever face in life is the conquest of fear and the development of courage. Fear is, and always has been, the greatest enemy of mankind. When Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was saying that the emotion of fear, rather than the realty of what we fear, is what causes us anxiety, stress, and unhappiness. When you develop the habit of courage and unshakeable self-confidence, a whole new world of possibilities opens up for you. Just imagine-what would you dare to dream or be or do if you weren’t afraid of anything in the whole world?

Develop the Habit of Courage

Fortunately, the habit of courage can be learned just as any other habit is learned, through repetition. We need to constantly face and overcome our fears to build up the kind of courage that will enable us to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life unafraid. The starting point in overcoming fear and developing courage is to look at the factors that predispose us toward being afraid. The root source of most fear is childhood conditioning, usually associated with destructive criticism. This causes us to develop two major types of fear. These are the fear of failure, which causes us to think “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” and the fear of rejection, which causes us to think “I have to, I have to, I have to.” Our fears can paralyze us, keeping us from taking constructive action in the direction of our dreams and goals.

The More You Know, the Less You Fear

Fear is also caused by ignorance. When we have limited information, our doubts dominate us. We become tense and insecure about the outcome of our actions. Ignorance causes us to fear change, to fear the unknown, and to avoid trying anything new or different. But the reverse is also true. The very act of gathering more and better information about a particular subject increases our courage and confidence in that area. You can see this in the parts of your life where you have no fear at all because you know what you are doing. You feel competent and completely capable of handling whatever happens.

Analyze Your Fears

Once you have identified the major factors that cause you to feel afraid, the next step is to objectively define and analyze your personal fears. At the top of a clean sheet of paper, write, “What am I afraid of?” Remember, all intelligent people are afraid of something. It is normal and natural to be concerned about your physical, emotional, and financial safety and that of the people you care about. A courageous person is not a person who is unafraid. As Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”

Action Exercise

Begin your list of fears by writing down everything, major and minor, that causes fear, stress, or anxiety. Think about the parts of your work or personal life where your fears might be holding you back or forcing you to stay in a job or relationship in which you are not happy. Once you have written down your fears, arrange them in order of importance, and then pick them apart one by one.

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