Fear itself

Are you frightened? There’s so much going on in the world right now and I, for one, am feeling it. We humans have all sorts of emotions, and they rattle around competing for control of our bodies and behaviours as we make our way in the world. Fear is strong. It can result in illness, life-limiting phobias, broken relationships, inability to thrive. And we run and hide in an attempt to stay safe.

We fear death, rejection, failure. These things happen all the time and so we feel justified. In the midst of a second wave of a global pandemic I am fearful about my health and the health of my loved ones. I’m fearful about the future of democracy. I’m fearful about financial insecurity. I’m fearful that the planet won’t survive. All big things wouldn’t you agree? The list could overwhelm. But what if we looked at those fears – really looked – and decided to sit with them and talk to them? Would they change their shape?

In 1920 a now infamous study took place in the US. The ‘Little Albert’ experiment sought to show conditioning by inducing fear through loud noise. A white rat was introduced to little Albert (aged 11 months) who initially remained calm, he was simply interested in something he’d never seen before. But following several more meetings with said rat, including loud bangs each time, he grew frightened. And his fear remained. (Look this up on YouTube if you want to see what scientists used to get away with – how far we’ve come!)

Aside from the countless ethical issues this is a sad outcome. Perhaps we are born naturally curious and fear is learned after all. Our ancient lizard brain processes it instantly as information arrives in the amygdala without time to think or plan our response. This stood us in good stead when dangers involved being eaten by predators but in modern life all sorts of different kinds of triggers can still provoke that primal response – immediate, frightening, requiring fight or flight. Run first, ask questions later.

But those physiological responses such as nausea or a quickening heart rate can also invoke tingly butterflies, excitement, even awe, but only when we pause to look and ask questions. Curiosity seeks information and information leads to knowledge and knowledge is power.

Fear and curiosity cannot co-exist. Be curious. Ask questions. And maybe, just maybe, your fears will recede.

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