Dr. Lana M. Saal, CWP, MCHES
Falling. Loud sounds. These are two sole fears we are born with. What happens after—from the beginning of our dash at birth throughout our one beautiful, magnificent life to the other side of the dash—life’s end, is shaped by our experiences as well as the observed experience and influence we receive from the people we know and love. Fears can be real or they can be perceived. Regardless, the mind and body are wired to respond to a fearful thought in the same way whether something is happening or we feel it may happen.
How do we go from a mere two to what some of us may hold as a whole basket of fears ranging from the tiniest spider compelling one to run out of the room in panic to full-on paralysis at the very thought of public speaking?
Fear is a neurophysiological response to a perceived threat. It does provide benefit. Fear keeps us on alert to prepare and keep safe from potential harm. The human brain, through the fight-or-flight response, is designed for species survival. The human brain is always “on” with one of its primary roles to consider the worst-case scenario as means to prepare to react or respond in ways that provide safety and survival. It mobilizes to cope with potential danger. This protection factor is “on” all the time. It is doing its job.
Why then do some people experience full-blown stop-in-your-tracks paralyzing fear whereas others exhibit a calm coolness in response to the same stimulus?
Fear is real. It is in the eyes of the beholder based upon their personal perception or past trauma. The mind’s view is that the worst-case scenario will happen. Fear is personal. Some hold on to fear like a badge of honor; it is what defines many, a part of their very essence. We need to respect the fear others hold as their truth.
The Six Dimensions of Wellness – occupational, physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual – create a platform for the concept of whole-person wellness (Dr. Bill Hettler, 1976). Fear impacts each dimension, often lessening the full potential of true well-being by limiting one, two, three or even all of the dimensions. When creating wellness programming, health promotion, or coaching interventions be aware that people may be resistant to change or fearful thus preventing optimal growth. Taking this into consideration can help shift from a fixed (fear) mindset to a growth (open) mindset approach for greater impact, as fears may prevent or delay the start of a new habit or lifestyle behavior.
The question to ask is: Does fear limit potential for what could be a life well-lived or even best-lived? Many agree it does limit pure potential. Once someone has overcome a fear, they harness that success energy and patterning to apply to other areas of their life or dimensions of wellness to tackle, work through, and come out victorious on the other side.
Addressing fears is an essential part of the process of behavioral change. Often, we think it’s simply resistance or lack of motivation, but it may often go deeper. There are many levels of fear ranging from trepidation, nervousness, anxiety, dread, desperation, panic, to full-blown terror. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s research with rodents provides an understanding of the brain circuitry of fear. LeDoux found there is a “low road” and a “high road” of fear. The “low road” involves activation of the amygdala (the part of the midbrain that serves to detect a threat and kick in the biobehavioral response that facilitates the fight or flee response). This physiological response causes faster breathing, increase in heart rate, sweating, and other physiological reactions to help provide an explosive fight off or run and flee from the fear-initiator. In other words, how we react to a situation. LeDoux describes a “high road” fear response during which information is processed and travels to the prefrontal cortex before going on to the amygdala. This is a slower pathway allowing for a more thorough analysis of the situation. This could be called how we respond.
Fear holds people back. When working within the world of wellness and health promotion, being aware of the many levels of fear allows practitioners and proponents of well-being to address and target programming to help bring fear down a level or two, or more, so as to provide an optimal space where behavioral change can be more positively impacted.
Neural pathways can form negative associations as with fear. When the brain processes a new thought, habit, or behavior, it makes an initial neural pathway. If it is never repeated, glial cells come in and remove the pathway. However, if that pathway—through thoughts and actions—is repeated, the neural pathway is created. If the fear response is practiced long enough and repeated over time, the pathway becomes embedded. It then becomes the easiest go-to or automated response. The great news is that when fear is addressed effectively and new neural pathways replacements (think re-routing) are created. As a result, there is opportunity and new space for new growth, achievement, and success. We can change neural pathways for positive results and there is endless potential to create an infinity of entirely new ones!
Fear is a known acronym, False Evidence Appearing Real. How do you encourage others (and yourself) to go beyond fear?
Here is an easy-to-implement 4-pillar framework to approach fear proactively. Physically writing them down is best as there is great power in handwriting things down as it helps the brain learn and remember better.
- Face the fear. Identify the fear(s), saying out loud and writing it down. Looking directly at your fears make them appear smaller and less scary. Create a positive, comforting mantra or affirmation to lessen the load of that fear in times of need.
- Explore the fear. Is there true evidence that the fear is real or that that worst case scenario will come true? Research it, become educated on it without analyzing too much, or holding onto it as a crutch. Look for proof, scientific or other. Talk with friends, family members, colleagues, or your therapist to ask how they view that issue and what has helped them work through their fear.
- Aware. Write down how that fear is impacting your life. Is it stealing your energy or preventing you from becoming all you can be?
- Recognize. Next, list all the people, places, and things that are important to you. What do you value most and hold near and dear to you? Recognize ways in which those fears are impacting or preventing you from being the best version of yourself as it relates to bringing you closer to your value set.
Face fear head on. Understand it. Embrace it and then let it go, as it no longer serves you. Live your best life throughout the entire dash—turning FEAR into FIERCE!