I have been thinking lately about fear.
Specifically, I’ve been noticing the conversations we have in our culture about fears. Many people offer advice on how to “manage” fears. In reflecting on this advice, I found it helpful to draw a distinction between two different types of fears.
Two Types of Fears
Original Fear (or Evolutionary Fear), is what I call the fear that we feel when are facing a situation of imminent death or bodily harm. A classic example is the fear we feel when we come face to face with a bear in the woods. Or the fear you might feel if someone pointed a gun at you in a dark alley. These types of situations were the original causes that triggered the “fight, flight, freeze” response, and that’s why I call them “Original Fear.”
There is a distinct physiological response that occurs when we are in an Original Fear situation. Each of us reacts differently depending on the situation, but you surely know the signs. Shallow breathing. Chest contstrictions. Sweaty palms. Knots in the pit of your stomach. Time either speeds up or slows down. Maybe you’re tempted to run, or maybe your legs get heavy and you can’t move. You may be tempted to retreat, or to fight back. And so on. It’s labeled as “fight, flight, freeze” for a reason.
The physiological effects are real responses to a real threat. In fact, I initially thought of this fear as “Real Fear.”
Many of the fears that we confront daily are not fears of imminent death or bodily harm. I call these fears Emotional Fears.
These include: Fears around taking a risk in our business or personal lives. Fears around pursuing a relationship, or taking on a bigger role in our organization, or trying a new activity. Fears of publishing our writing (maybe that’s just me).
If the potential outcome is not physical bodily harm or death, then we are dealing with an Emotional Fear.
Whatever the thing is that we fear, when we dig down beneath the surface we often find that the real fear is rooted not so much in the doing of the thing itself, but in the outcome: whatever will happen as a result of doing this thing.
If you’ve ever experienced any type of Emotional Fear, then you know that this fear, too, provokes a physiological response. In fact, this response is often indistinguishable from the way our bodies respond to Original Fear. At some point, our brains equated the outcome we expect from doing a thing to a fate as bad as imminent death or bodily harm. As a result, we often experience the same physiological effects.
I think about this fear also as “Conditioned Fear,” because the physiological response we experience has been conditioned within us through our various experiences and the people and culture around us.
All Fear is Real
It is important to understand that both Original Fear and Emotional Fear are real.
Any emotion we feel is real.
Original Fear is a protection mechanism that we developed as a way to survive the harsh elements and real threats to our survival. This fear shows up in response to perceived threats to our existence that are, in fact, true.
When we experience Emotional Fear, our bodies respond to a perceived threat that does not actually exist. Although the threat is not actually real, the fear itself is still very real.
Our conditioned physiological response in this situation does not serve us when it keeps us from doing something that could be helpful to our growth.
Beyond “Listen to Your Body”
I often hear the advice to “listen to your body.” The challenge with following this advice is that our bodies produce the same physiological response to both Original Fear and Emotional Fear. We need a better tool to help us understand when it is physically safe to proceed.
Imagine the freedom you would feel if you could break this patterned response in the places where it is not rooted in a real threat. If you knew that when your body sent you the messages of fear that you were, actually, in an “imminent harm” situation, it would be so much easier to listen to your body.
The distinction between the two types of fears is a tool I use to help me determine what type of fear is at play when my body sends a message of fear.
Here are some questions I ask myself when I examine what’s provoking the fear response in my body:
- what is the situation that is provoking this fear response?
- do I fear the actual doing of a certain thing or do I fear the outcome that will result if I do his thing?
- what are the potential harms that can occur to me or others in the course of taking the action itself?
- what are the possible outcomes from the action (i.e., what might happen as a result of my taking this action)?
Try making this inquiry the next time your body sends you a fear message, and see if it helps your understanding of your experience.
Does this distinction help you as you consider your fears?