Do You Embrace Your Fears?
by Christine Enking
You may have heard the expressions “Fear is your friend” and/or “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” I don’t remember “thinking” a lot about fear, but I know that I lived in fear every day until about 10 years ago; residual effects from early childhood. Then, I was fortunate enough to attend a weekend retreat that opened my eyes about my fears and how they affected my choices and actions or, more appropriately, my reactions to life.
Before we go any further, let’s lay some groundwork. I want to talk about some brain basics because our brain is very integral part of how we interpret our fears and, subsequently, respond to them. According to Dr. Bruce Perry from the Child Trauma Academy, there are four main areas in the brain. The lowest and least complex area is the brainstem. It is the primitive part of the brain that is responsible for our regulatory systems, those areas that we don’t think about – they just automatically operate. That includes areas such as our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. The second area, the diencephalon, is responsible for our muscles, skeleton, and organs. It factors in with our movement such as bicycling, playing the piano, or weightlifting.
It’s the third area of the brain I want to focus on, the limbic system or emotional area of our brain. It also includes our amygdala, or fear center. Perry says that when sensory information comes in, it is sent to the brain for processing. It enters the lowest area first, the brainstem, and a decision is made about whether or not the information is a threat. Either way, we draw from our past experiences to decide how we will interpret the new information and how we will respond to it. If we’ve had similar experiences to the one coming in, we recall our prior response was and respond similarly. The information continues to the diencephalon and, again, it is interpreted and a response is made.
When the information enters the limbic area and fear center, we decide if the information poses a threat. This decision is based on past experiences and our interpretation of those experiences. If we perceived the past experience as a threat, we will continue with that perception until proven otherwise and respond or react accordingly. For example, if you round a corner and there is a man with a gun pointed at you, the information moves through the lower three areas of the brain in a split second. Your reaction might be to freeze up, flee, or fight back. Guaranteed it would be difficult to “think” about what is happening and decide how to respond.
Consider a child who is experiencing or has experienced trauma. In their mind they will interpret the experience based on their developmental ability. This may lead to false associations. For example: My father abused me; he is a man: therefore, all men will abuse me. And if the trauma is not resolved and the false association isn’t corrected, we will carry the fear that resulted from it along with our false associations into adulthood. Essentially, we are making adult decisions with parts of our brain stuck in past trauma. The implications are huge.
The bottom line in knowing all of this is that when you are in your fear, you are not able to fully access the fourth area of our brain, the cognitive center or cortex. This is the area of the brain where we critically think about situations and problem solve. We perform math functions and make judgment calls that are in our best interests.
Now I know, when I feel my fear creeping in, how to see it as a friend or gift. If I don’t sense I’m in immediate danger, I try to pause and move to my “thinking” brain and process where the fear is coming from, and what I need to do to respond to the situation, rather than simply react.
Fear is born out of our preoccupation with ruminating about our past experiences or worrying about the uncertainty of our future. I believe that we are motivated by our fear or we are motivated by our acceptance of what is. Staying in the moment is the only place we are able to embrace our fear as a friend and truly believe there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
Early in her career, Christine worked in the for-profit sector, primarily in positions related to accounting and business. After four years of work in a program with Mark Storry (her coauthor) and his partners from Partners Institute (Partners in Prevention), she decided to go back to school. She received her MSW and began her career in child protection, helping parents who were involved in the system learn to reduce the risk to their children. After 15 years, she moved on to work with a nonprofit organization that provided support and services for survivors of domestic violence and their children. In her own way, she continues to make a difference in the lives of children, one child at a time. Christine has an adult daughter. She is winding down her professional career and plans to become a full-time writer. Visit Christine’s website: AProtocolForGrace.com.