Being energetically attuned to what’s around us is a skill that aids our survival. When we are attuned to the energy around us, we know when danger is approaching and when we need to take action to get ourselves to safety.
The process of attuning to the energy around us is natural and biological; we are wired for this. And this attunement process is how we learn fear, or, more specifically, when to be afraid. Our parents teach us to discern between safety and danger.
Energetics of Parent/Child Relationships
Mothers in every species are wired to protect their babies. A mother will hear her child cry before others in the room hear a sound. Parents are wired to pick up on their childrens’ distress so that they can do the job of keeping their children safe. It’s instinctual, not a thought process.
Likewise, children are wired to pick up on their parents’ distress. You don’t have to understand the words people are using to understand the emotional tenor of a conversation. As children, the first ways we learn make sense of the world around us and our place within it is through our senses: we gather information based on facial reactions, body language, tone of voice, cadence, volume, and vibration.
This is energy.
You can feel it in your body. And — this is important — you can feel it even if you’re not in the room, because the vibration produced by sound travels.
Energy is contagious.
It’s not rocket science. (Actually, it’s quantum physics, but I’ll leave that to the physiscists.)
How We Learn Fear
This is how we first learn to feel fear. A parent who is operating in fear or distress conditions their child to be in fear or distress, regardless of what the parent says or does.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “values are caught, not taught.”
As an example, let’s imagine a parent who is afraid of dogs. If they are with their child and a dog approaches, the child will feel the parent’s fear. The dog also feels the parent’s fear, via the same mechanism. Even if the parent tells the child not to be afraid, the child is getting clear information that this situation is dangerous; the information activate’s the child’s sympathetic nervous system, creating a biological response to fight or flee.
False Danger Signals
Here’s a challenge:
What happens if the danger isn’t real?
First, let’s explore two primary ways this can happen, using the example above for reference:
(1) The parent is in sympathetic mode for a reason not related to the dog.
The parent may be in sympathetic mode based on some other trigger, or some held fear from the past. The child doesn’t know this, because the child can’t read minds. The parent also may not be aware of this. Many of us aren’t aware when we are in sympathetic mode.
(2) The dog isn’t actually dangerous.
The parent may not realize the dog isn’t actually dangerous, because the parent’s sympathetic nervous system has been conditioned to activate at the sight of the dog. This response tells the parent there is danger.
So what happens if the danger isn’t real?
Unfortunately, neither one of these factors impacts the process.
In the present moment, the presence of the dog plus the energy of the parent in fear leads the child to conclude that the dog is dangerous.
Keep in mind that this “conclusion” is not a conscious, logical process; it’s instinctive and unconscious, a biological response designed to keep us safe. No rational thinking ability required here. This is happening on the level of the unconscious:
Parent in sympathetic mode + dog ==> Danger signal ==> activates sympathetic nervous system.
Every time this happens, the “danger” neural pathway is strengthened. Eventually, the child doesn’t need the presence of the parent to create the response, and it becomes:
Dog = Fight or Flight response
Just like that, the child has learned to fear dogs.
Unlearning the Fear
Unlearning that fear can take years, sometimes decades.
Retraining the nervous system is a long, slow, incremental process that requires repeated exposure and intimacy with the trigger until our bodies and minds learn that they are safe. This isn’t just mind work; it’s not merely a function of repeating a mantra that dogs are friendly. What is happening in the fear response is a biological process that must be unraveled also in the physical body.
Mind and body must work together.
The Next Level
I intentionally kept this example simple, focusing only on one source of sensory input for how we learn fear. Of course, we don’t just have one sensory input.
The fear conditioning can be strengthened or weakened depending on inputs from our tribes, communities, cultural messaging, and global attitudes and beliefs.
It’s All About Habits
This is the basic process. It’s how we learn to be afraid of anything in life, including other people.
Fear is a conditioned habit. To break the habit we must uncondition it. It’s challenging, but not impossible. The first step is awareness.
We must acknowledge the habit and resolve to unlearn the fear.