And then there is this thing called Fear…

From an article written in Commusings by Jeff Krasno

…..Fear is as ancient as sentient life on earth. It is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction evolved over biological history to protect organisms, including humans, against perceived threat.

Homo Sapiens have spent the majority of their time here on earth as hunter-gatherers, foraging for edible plants and pursuing wild animals on the savanna. The “fight or flight” response to external stimuli has undeniable utility, keeping us safe from charging rhinoceri roaming the Serengeti. In modern times, the likelihood of getting mauled by a horned, odd-toed ungulate is minuscule, but human biology has not evolved significantly over the past 12,000 years. However, the threats have evolved — or devolved. There were no lockers, subways, planes or elevators in East Africa in 10,000 BC. The menaces of modernity tend to be more psychological than physiological.

Let’s take a brief foray into the neurobiology of fear. Fright is a product of the brain and mediated by our autonomic nervous system, which regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination and sexual arousal. This system functions autonomously, hence its name, below the crust of conscious effort. The autonomic nervous system has two primary divisions: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system is most associated with “rest and digest,” decreasing respiration and heart rate and increasing gastrointestinal activity. The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. How does this work exactly?
The “fight, flight or freeze” response is initiated in a region of the brain called the amygdala. This almond-shaped mass of neurons in the temporal lobe is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of stimuli. A threat, such as the sight of a drunk man running toward you with a chainsaw, triggers a fear reaction in the amygdala, which, in turn, activates neural areas responsible for motor functions relating to either putting up a fight, getting the hell out of Dodge or becoming a possum.

What ensues is an internal neural debate between fear and reason, as if there could be any deliberation more emblematic of our times.

At the risk of glazing your eyes over with bio-jargon, I will delve one layer deeper. The amygdala interfaces with the endocrine system via the hypothalamus. The hormones epinephrine and cortisol are secreted into the bloodstream leading to a rise in blood pressure and pulmonary activity and a reduction of commotion in the stomach and intestines. Fatty acids convert into fuel for muscle use while pupils dilate and vision becomes tunneled.

While the body preps for fight or flight, there is a simultaneous, countervailing action that emerges in the hippocampus, the brain region dedicated to memory storage, that mitigates the fear response. Along with the prefrontal cortex, the rational decision-making part of the brain, these centers of reason assess the legitimacy of a threat. If the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex decide that the fear response is exaggerated, they can dampen the amygdala’s activity. For example, if the raging man with the chainsaw is simply being projected on a movie screen, our sensible “thinking brains” will overpower the primal parts of the brain’s automated fear response.

Intellectually, I can ascribe much of my claustrophobia to my penchant for fixating on the trauma of my past and projecting it into the future as a harrowing anticipated memory. I recognize that fear is merely an emotion arising and subsiding in consciousness moment to moment. He saunters into my house, like an uninvited guest at my dinner party, and, as soon as I approach him, he disappears with my favorite wine glass. When my mind snuggles into the quiet cradle of meditation, it knows that my fear of confined spaces is simply a phantom of my own projection. Rationally, I know I will be fine. I can breathe and witness the fear as a passing phenomenon.

However, despite this insight, I still occasionally feel the pall of terror envelop me in a crowded elevator. This is what I refer to as “amygdala hijack,” where the sympathetic nervous system eclipses my rational brain.

My friend and psychologist, Hala Khouri, posits that my locker incident may have left a somatic imprint. Here is Khouri’s diagnosis:

When we experience a terrorizing event that was inescapable (“an inescapable shock trauma”), the impulse to get away is not able to be expressed. If we don’t discharge that energy, the impulse gets trapped in the body. For you, it’s possible that each time you feel constricted, you reconnect to the intolerable feelings from that event and the impulses to escape it also emerge. Even though the situations you describe are probably tolerable, they are associated with a terrorizing event and your nervous system goes into overwhelm as a result.

In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer refers to this intractable trauma as samskara, a recurring energy pattern that becomes stuck.

Fear rears its unsightly head in myriad ways. People bear the burden of phobias from snakes (ophidiophobia) to failure, from heights (acrophobia) to judgment, from needles (trypanophobia) to death. Fear can become part of our personal story, girding our sense of identity.

Humans exist at the intersection of consciousness and personhood. Consciousness is the space in which we perceive thoughts, sensations and emotions arising moment to moment. This experienced life unfolds in the now. We are simply bobbing down this river of impermanence seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling and hearing.

Our personhood is the contents of consciousness. It is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that inform what it is like to be us. This narrative life shapes our identity through the collection of infinitesimally small slices of spacetime. Our lives become a stack of these memories, like a towering heap of cheese singles. One moment is so much like the last one and the one before. While there is no conventional stable self within the space of consciousness, our narrative life provides us with the physical and psychological continuity that codifies our perceived identity. In a sense, our narrative life sits within our experienced life and contributes stories, sometimes traumatic, that can elicit the appearance of fear, anger and other emotions.

Of course, not all fear is detrimental. Fear can also be understood as awe or reverence for something powerful. You can recognize the potency and potential danger of a massive hurricane and, in turn, take shelter. Fear can serve as a barometer for making sensible choices.

But most of the fears we experience on a regular basis are extremely limiting and, in some cases, paralyzing. If fear is prohibiting you from reaching your potential, the antidote may consist of applying theory and training to direct experience.

We can train the mind to witness negative emotions and thoughts as simply phenomena arising and subsiding in consciousness. Mindfulness, sacred non-judgmental presence, helps us to not fixate on or identify with old stories. Instead, we let them go.

We can apply this cognitive training to playing with the edges of our fears, to experimenting with discomfort. For example, I can choose to encase myself like a vegan sausage in a sensory deprivation tank, a tight cylindrical space that would normally elicit a significant freakout. I can witness the nausea, the dizziness and the myriad symptoms of fear arise without assigning any valence to them. If the fear becomes unbearable, I can bail out. This exercise is tantamount to going to a mental gym. I am building the muscle of the pre-frontal cortex.

And at some point, certainly, I will be confined to a small space against my will. This absence of choice will test my mental musculature.

Undoubtedly, the most famous quotation about fear was articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his inauguration day in 1933:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Our proclivity for personal phobias plays out in broader society. Media propagates fear through sensationalism and biased editorial in the name of selling ads. Authoritarians stir up a frenzy of fright around crime and jobs and offer up scapegoats as a means to seize and maintain power. Social media addicts post chilling disinformation in exchange for neural rewards.

The result is this: We are an amygdala-hijacked culture trapped in a locker tethered to incessant outrage.

If we are to fulfill our individual and collective potential then we must cultivate the ability to discern between true threat and “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” And this capacity only emerges out of a commitment to rigorously examine the nature of the mind.

Consciousness is a double-edged saber. The cognizance of our own impermanence is the sharp point in our collective side. Yet, this sentience provides the opportunity for the neo-mammalian brain to dull the reptilian, to pour the water of reason onto the fire of fear. Otherwise, we spend our lives fruitlessly kicking the door of the locker.

It’s our choice. We can be a host for reason or a hostage to fear.

Photo by Alexandra I. on Unsplash

What are we afraid of?

Thank you Jeff for this piece….

Posted by | Paul Reynolds
Paul has been a yoga teacher on the Island of Kauai for many years and is the facilitator of the weekly Living the Question Blog - a repository of wisdom and inspiration. Paul also produces and hosts Le Guru is You Radio Show, showcasing everyday gurus.

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