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THOMPSON: There is more to fear than fear itself

May 25, 2020 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


What scares you? Some people fear snakes, others are afraid of height and still others hate elevators. Curiously, any given person’s fears might not faze someone else.

There are just two innate human fears...ones we are born with...a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises. All other fears are learned or develop as we age.

Now, to be clear, some people - we all have known one or more people like this - actually seem fearless. I must confess all those I ever knew who acted fearlessly are seriously dead. That fact alone tells me a lot of what I need to know about having a healthy respect for fear.

Fear is one of those emotionally charged words - like rat - that conjures up pretty negative feelings. But fear need not be that complicated. It is simply the anxiety we all feel when we anticipate some imagined event or experience...or actually face that threat. Turns out, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was quite accurate when he said in his 1933 Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...”

Still, a specific fear can seem nonsensical…especially if it is another’s fear and not our own.

For example, I hate driving behind a logging truck. I don’t know why…perhaps when my mother was pregnant with me she was scared by a lumberjack…but to this day I will not follow a logging truck. It’s pass or fall back!

How do you explain such a fear...when I have no aversion to say handling a snake...even a poison one? Fear is a healthy, reasonable thing. It can save us from making really dumb…potentially dangerous decisions.

But taken to the extreme, a fear can paralyze us…it can become a phobia and interfere with our quality of life. Doctors tell us garden-variety fear is normal. It's pretty much the same reaction biologically whether we're facing a biting dog, being audited by Canada Revenue Agency or driving behind a log truck.

We really should accept fear for what it is…information…and we can learn from it if we choose.

Psychologists agree generally on five basic fears...the sources of all of our specific fears:

  1. Extinction…a fear of annihilation…fear of death.…but also that feeling some get looking over a sheer cliff.
  2. Mutilation...losing a body part...but anxiety about animals, bugs, spiders and snakes comes from this.
  3. Loss of Autonomy...fear of being paralyzed, restricted, overwhelmed...or being controlled. Claustrophobia actually falls in this category.
  4. Separation...fear of abandonment and rejection...feelings of being unwanted.
  5. Ego/Humiliation....fears of shame, disapproval and non-acceptance.

If you want to know exactly what happens in the brain when we are scared there are myriad websites - from Harvard Medical School to the National Institutes of Health - with detailed information about areas of the brain like the Hypothalamus and Amygdala.

I’ll leave it here more simply. Fear triggers a flood of stress hormones that bring about physical changes...our heart pounds and breathing quickens. Our muscles tense and beads of sweat break out on our forehead.

It’s what is known as the “fight or flight” response and all of us have experienced it...though for different reasons...different fears. All of this happens in an instant.

As it turns out, one man’s (or woman’s) fear is another’s thrill...a pleasurable experience that actually releases dopamine...like a feel-good drug - in the brain! In fact, those of us who define ourselves as thrill-seekers become so used to this feeling...coupled with the fact that we survive our behaviour...we tend to see them as not at all risky or scary.

There are a few people - thankfully it’s a rare occurrence - who truly are fearless because areas of their brains have partially calcified. So, while they might understand the concept of fear for others...they literally don’t sense fear for themselves.

The two innate human fears notwithstanding, young children quickly learn through their cultures and environments what to do and not do. Fear of spiders and snakes, for example, was so ingrained in our ancestors - probably because some were venomous and dangerous - that children today have evolved and from an early age generally recoil when they see a spider or snake...as opposed to say a flower.

Still, all said and done, fears are strangely different for almost all of us. My own fears are a classic example. I fear being behind a log truck on the road. But I loved rides in the back seat of a U.S. Air Force F-4 or F-16 fighter jet! That doesn’t seem to make sense...does it?

And while I like Alfred Hitchcock movies...some people find them terrifying. Yet, I wouldn’t ever watch a gory slasher movie. Go figure.

If you have a specific fear, let me know. And if it’s driving behind a logging truck, well, we’ll form a support group.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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