When our threat response system is engaged, we can’t think straight. We act reactively and without thought. If our threat response system is badly calibrated, we behave badly. Many of our reactive behaviors have negative unintended consequences.
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Bite-sized chunks of wisdom about self-leadership for you to chew on.
The Anatomy of Fear
Podcast Opening over Theme Music:
Hello and welcome. This is Kate's Nuggets, the podcast where I share bite-sized nuggets of wisdom about self-leadership. I am your host, Kate Arms. I invite you to listen lightly, let these ideas wash over you, take what you take and let the rest go. You can always come back and listen again.
Today I want to talk about the anatomy of fear. The anatomy of fear helps us to understand when we've overlearned fear responses and how we can relearn appropriate responses to fear.
This matters a lot.
Many of my clients, when we unpack why they use certain unhelpful behaviors in their lives, discover that these are coping mechanisms that they developed as a result of overlearning fear because they were sensitive to and unable to handle the amounts of shame, disappointment, or rejection that they received, particularly as children and often from their parents.
This is often quite surprising to my clients because when they look at their childhoods, they see good childhood, and they don't realize until they look a little deeper that what they experienced from adults that were responsible for their caregiving had an emotional impact on them.
So what has usually happened in this case from my client's perspective is that my client was a highly sensitive person and overlearned fear responses.
So if you are finding that you are having difficulty with emotional regulation, detachment from your emotions, a sense of guilt or shame, a sense of being different from other people, difficulty with relationships where in particular you might find yourself avoiding relationships because you don't trust people or a feeling of not knowing how to interact with others, you may have a sense of meaninglessness about your life.
You might have difficulty with really finding a way of believing that you matter. These kinds of things are often part of overlearning fear.
Other things that might be part of overlearning fear are just when you avoid situations because they make you uncomfortable.
Or if you are hyper-alert, if you are always watching out for things.
You might be forgetful. You might have difficulty following through on commitments. In any of these cases, what you might be dealing with is overlearned fear.
So what I mean by overlearned fear is that... Fear is good.
We need to experience fear. Fear is a warning system that tells us that we need to pay attention to things. And if we don't have fear, we don't have a reminder to pay attention to. things.
But if we overlearn fear, what happens is we have one experience where something negative happens and we learn that any experience that shares any characteristics with the ones that had the bad outcome last time is to be avoided. That's what overlearning fear is.
So because fear is a natural occurrence, when we want to do something unfamiliar, when we are trying to do something new, when we're trying to do something creative, when we're trying to learn something, if we overlearn fear, we stop being able to learn, we stop being able to be creative, we stop being willing to try new things, we don't like needing new people.
Our lives can become very, very small if we've overlearned fear.
I'm going to talk about the anatomy of fear so we can talk about how to undo the overlearning of fear.
What happens when we get afraid is there's some external stimulus or internal stimulus that we perceive through our senses.
And through our senses we get this perception and there is a part of us that takes this input and has wired it with our threat assessment that immediately sends a message to our amygdala that says, "This needs dealing with."
Our amygdala then releases stress hormones.
Adrenaline, which gives us lots of energy, which makes us agitated and anxious if we don't have things that we can do with that.
Cortisol, which narrows our focus, stops our prefrontal cortex from getting involved and focuses on getting out of the situation as fast as possible, getting out of the danger as fast as possible. Nothing else matters except getting out of this danger.
The cortisol narrows our focus, and depending on the circumstances, what our options look like from a very quick assessment. This is pre-conscious assessment and taps our default patternings. We fight, we run away or we freeze and hope that we don't get noticed.
If we are in a place where freezing is not going to work and we can't get away and the threat feels bigger and stronger than we are, we may indulge in what is known as fawning behavior, which is trying to appease the person or situation who has power over us.
This physiological fight, flight, freeze, fawn response happens incredibly fast.
It is designed to happen incredibly fast because it's our emergency escape hatch. If it didn't happen incredibly fast, we would not be able to get ourselves out of danger when there was a sudden oncoming threat.
If we find that a car is swerving towards us and we are crossing the street, we need that engagement as fast as possible to maximize our chance of being able to get out of the path of the car without being hit.
Most of the threats that most of us run into in modern life are not as immediately dangerous as that. Most of the time, we actually have time to apply our conscious thinking to trying to solve the thing that is making us afraid.
Overlearning fear means that things that we actually have time to process cognitively get shunted to the amygdala system fast, and then from the amygdala system to action happens so fast that there's no time for the cognitive processing to interrupt.
So the process of interrupting and unlearning fear-based behaviors is to do a couple of things.
One is to pre-train our brains so that fewer things get immediately shunted to the amygdala system.
This requires skills training about how to handle things, mindset training about improvising one's life and how one can make the most out of challenging situations and mitigate risk.
Meditation of a mindfulness of thoughts approach in particular increases the prefrontal cortex in ways that make it function faster, so the prefrontal cortex can actually move faster to speed up its ability to keep up with the fear-based system, which will allow it to stop it more often.
Many of the practices of unlearning fear are actually about training the prefrontal cortex to be faster so that it will keep up and be able to interrupt the patterns.
Once you've started interrupting the patterns and started creating evidence that you can handle the things, they're less likely to trigger the amygdala response in the first place. Because as part of that quick assessment about, "Is this too scary for me to handle," there's data that the answer is no.
Overlearning fear is very common for people who have emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity.
If you are emotionally sensitive, you have high highs and low lows in your emotional experience, then you are more likely to overlearn things because strong emotions increase learning.
Things that we feel strongly about, we learn better.
If you have a highly sensitive emotional system in terms of the size of your emotional reactions, then the things that you really care about, you are going to learn an enormous amount about easily. You are also going to learn fast about the things that scare you and to avoid them.
One form of emotional sensitivity is rejection sensitivity.
For people who have rejection sensitivity, these emotional highs and lows are particularly pronounced in an emotional low around interpersonal relationships, and this typically shows up as a lot of guilt or a lot of shame, an inability, an incredibly painful response to feeling like you've disappointed somebody, an incredibly painful response to being teased or criticized by important people in your life.
People with rejection sensitivity have a very hard time receiving feedback unless it's couched in a way that really demonstrates that this feedback is for the best possible reasons, because the person giving the feedback really, really deeply wants the best for the person receiving the feedback.
Emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity are both characteristics of ADHD.
Another characteristic of ADHD is an interest-based nervous system. So this is another way in which the emotions of "I'm interested in this," push to motivation, and learning and the interest overcomes the fear.
One of the things that's really interesting about realizing that this is related to ADHD in terms of understanding the anatomy of fear is that stimulants are one of the medications that are frequently found to help with ADHD.
The reason that stimulants work is stimulants speed up the prefrontal cortex and the cognitive processing, but they do not speed up the amygdala driven responses to situations.
The ADHD medication, the stimulants themselves, are a way of speeding up that process.
Many people with undiagnosed ADHD self-medicate with caffeine because caffeine has the same impact.
If you want to undo the overlearning of fear, your goal is to find ways of speeding up that prefrontal cortex. And the way to do that is through learning and training that is specifically aimed at the things that scare you.
This can be incredibly difficult to do by yourself, which is why coaches and therapists are useful. It is not impossible to do by yourself if you simply decide that you are committed to practicing and developing this. And one of the things that understanding the physiology can give you is a way to be compassionate with yourself when you are trying.
What happens all the time when we are trying to break habits is that we have to replace them with new habits.
We have to identify, "Where does the habit start from? At what point do I actually have the power to make a new decision, and when does the compulsion and the reactive behavior start?"
And then whatever decision that we want to make about how we want to change our behavior, we have to insert in that right at the decision making point. "When this happens, I will insert new behavior." And then what will happen is at first, you won't even notice that you've missed the opportunity, but you keep reiterating the intention, "When this happens, I will... new behavior."
Eventually you get to a point where you notice that you're doing the old behavior while you're doing it and you still can't stop it. Keep going, "When this happens, I will... new behavior."
Keep reminding yourself and reminding yourself, and then you get to a point where you are noticing as you're doing it that you're doing the old behavior and you find yourself able to stop and do the new behavior.
But you do the new behavior unskillfully because it's brand new and you've never done it before, and so it probably doesn't have the impact that you want.
Celebrate this moment so hard because this is actually the moment in which everything changes for the better. Keep going, "When this, I will... new behavior."
Slowly you will develop the skills of the new behavior and you interrupt new behavior.
Over time, the new behavior becomes the default behavior and you will have unlearned a fear response to that particular stimulation.
When you have unlearned the fear response, that stimulation, those sensory inputs, those circumstances will get filtered to your prefrontal cortex and you will be able to consciously decide how you want to respond, and you will have your freedom of choice back.
Here's to having your choices fully accessible.
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Here's to Thriving! Catch you next time.
Kate's Nuggets is a Signal Fire Coaching production. The music is adapted under license from Heroic Age by Kevin McLeod.