Fear as a Call to Action

We think of fear as a negative emotion. It excites reactive tendencies to avoid something, flee a situation. It can even cause a momentary paralysis of action. We can feel embarrassed to admit and reveal our fears. So, it’s not difficult to see why fear is among the least welcome emotions.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

A Closer Look at Fear

There are two kinds of fear. The first is a naturally endowed, instinctual fear, which has an obvious evolutionary survival value. It’s a visceral reaction to imminent threat. It’s aroused automatically as a product of the autonomic nervous system. It accelerates our heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure, prepares us to flee, flight, or freeze.

The other kind of fear is learned. Much of it is learned early in life based upon our feelings of security. Absent reliably available and encouraging caregivers, we might learn that we’re on our own. Relationships can’t be trusted. We feel less secure, are more likely to perceive threats and to amplify and exaggerate them. Such fears, once functional, can become dysfunctional.

Fear as Positive

A more adaptive learning occurs in the presence of reliable, caring parents. Fears are treated as prompts for learning. First, the parent is there as a safe harbor - child is not on his/her own. Second, the parent-child dialogue places fears at a safe distance - child survives them and learns that setbacks are survivable. Finally, the child finds safe ways to face what was earlier feared.

This is what I meant by characterizing fear as a “call to action.” Rather than learning that fears are to be denied or fled from, we can focus on the message the fears convey: “A reactive fear is forming. I can feel it. It could flood me with amplified and exaggerated feelings of distress. But I know that the best course of action might be to pause, reflect, discuss the situation.”

Fears will continue to visit us. After we’ve left home, advanced into early adulthood, perhaps started a career, and may even have formed a committed relationship or family, they will come. So, we need to take what we learned with our parents and seek the help of others, i.e., supervisor, spouse, close friends. But what if we didn’t get that supportive help and learning as a child?

Activating the Positive Value of Fear

Find a psychotherapist or coach to help you learn the lessons you missed in childhood. They are trained to be that kind of presence for you. It’s not too late. Moreover, they can help you learn how to cultivate this kind of joint learning with others at work or at home. And the first thing you’ll learn is how to recognize your own learned fears as they arise.

Fears can have positive value as signals when we learn to recognize them. When we acquire the capacity to notice the visceral sensations, we bring them into our conscious awareness, i.e., “Oh, it’s you again!” We’re then able to transform their automaticity. In discussion with others, we objectify fears, we problematize them and analyze them.

And from there we can usually find adaptive avenues of action. The problem-focused avenue works on the external circumstances. The meaning-focused avenue works on the meaning which the external situation have for us. As we examine our relationship to these circumstances, we find that there are alternative ways to look at (appraise) the situation.

The helping relationship becomes a place for cultivating these ways of relating to others about our fears. In the safety of this relationship a corrective pattern of emotional response grows. Our inhibitions about acknowledging and addressing fears weakens. And that frees us to go to work on the residual problems and challenges with greater confidence, patience, and persistence.