What is Fear? Why Are We Afraid? How to Dominate Your Fear?

Close up focus of hand woman showing to stop violence fear abuse. domestic pain, trafficking concept.

Imagine you’re riding the subway in New York City. The train is jostling around, and you can hear the noise of it moving.

The other people on the train seem bored and tired after a long day of work. They’re all absorbed in their phones.

Suddenly, you decide to stand up and start telling jokes. You say, “What do you call a pig that knows karate? A pork chop!” The passengers around you give you annoyed looks, groan, and wish you’d be quiet.

But you keep going with another joke: “What do you call an alligator in a vest? An in-vest-i-gator!” At the next stop, a few passengers can’t take it anymore and move to a different train car.

Now, let’s shift back to the present moment. Pay attention to how you’re feeling right now. Do you have that uneasy sensation in your stomach? That’s fear.

What is Fear? Why Are We Afraid?

Let’s switch gears. Imagine you’re out in the woods, all alone on a hike. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot something moving. You turn to look, and it’s a snake slithering toward you. The snake seems to be staring at you, flicking its tongue, and strangely, it looks like it’s smiling.

What would you do in this situation? Maybe you’d run away, freeze in place, or grab a stick for defence. These reactions are hardwired to keep you safe because snakes can be dangerous.

Among all human emotions, fear is one of the most powerful. When fear takes over, everything else fades into the background, and your body prepares for fight or flight in an instant.

Caucasian sad woman sitting at the sofa with depression

Why do we experience fear so strongly? Think about it this way: Fear is like an alarm that alerts you when you’re in danger, and it has a crucial purpose. It helps you avoid situations that could harm or even kill you.

Here’s another important thing to know about fear. The human brain is like a layered cake, with different evolutionary layers. The newest part is the prefrontal cortex, often called the “human brain,” while the oldest part is the brain stem, often referred to as the “lizard brain.” Fear, being a primal emotion, resides in the lizard brain.

So, when you’re scared, your ability to think clearly is compromised. Fear activates your lizard brain, diverting blood away from other parts of your brain and making it incredibly challenging to think logically.

When you read both the snake and subway stand-up stories, you likely experienced a similar feeling. Why does this happen? Why do we react similarly to social blunders and life-threatening animals? Well, it goes back to our ancient history when making social mistakes could be deadly.

In the early stages of human evolution, annoying or upsetting fellow tribe members could have dire consequences. If your tribe didn’t like you, they might kick you out or even harm you. Your reputation mattered a lot because it could mean life or death.

So, we developed a deep fear of anything that could damage our reputation. For instance, in a study, 70% of Americans said they would rather lose their dominant hand than have a swastika tattooed on their forehead. In another study, 53% of Americans claimed they’d prefer death over being perceived as a child molester. This shows our primal fear of losing our social status.

However, here’s the catch: these instincts don’t always apply in the modern world. Making a social blunder among strangers might make you feel awkward, but it won’t have life-threatening consequences. Even among friends, your reputation might take a hit, but it won’t lead to your demise.

In some cases, the fear of making social mistakes can hold us back. For instance, Peter Thiel observed that many successful entrepreneurs have Asperger’s syndrome, which can make picking up on social cues more challenging. The point is, that our ancient fears sometimes prevent us from doing things that could benefit us.

Most animals have automatic fear responses. For example, a deer freezes when it’s scared because it’s harder for predators to spot a stationary target. However, this strategy doesn’t work against a moving car. Similarly, people have automatic fear responses, and these can vary—some run away, some freeze up, and others get angry.

The problem is that reacting solely based on these automatic responses when we’re afraid can lead us to respond the same way to both socially awkward situations and dangerous animals. Clearly, that’s not ideal.

The good news is that we have the power to choose how we respond to fear. One of the remarkable aspects of being human is our ability to decide how we react when fear strikes.

Portraits of African Americans women entrepreneurs showing fear and anxiety about investing in high risk businesses.

Moving Toward Your Fears

Think of playing chess, where your king is in danger. What’s your first instinct? For many beginners, it’s to move the king away from the threat. It’s natural to want to escape when we sense danger.

However, skilled chess players understand it’s not always that straightforward. Sometimes, the best move is to place your king right into the attack. Other times, it’s about launching a counterattack.

This chess principle mirrors real life. If you freeze or run from everything that scares you, you’ll miss out on many of life’s opportunities. Occasionally, you need to confront your fears head-on.

When you act despite feeling fear, that’s what we call “courage.” Courage means doing what you know needs to be done, even when fear is present.

Consider classic adventure stories like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Dune, or Beowulf. The main characters in these tales always display tremendous courage. Adventure stories require heroes, and heroes need courage.

In reality, most things demand courage. Leaving a job you despise takes courage. Asking someone you’re interested in for a date takes courage. Standing up to a bully takes courage. Expressing an unpopular opinion takes courage. Essentially, almost any positive change in your life requires courage.

Courage is a quality that distinguishes successful from unsuccessful people and happy from unhappy ones. If you constantly avoid your fears, you might feel better momentarily. However, in the long run, your life will suffer.

Close up focus of hand woman showing to stop violence fear abuse. domestic pain, trafficking concept.

Harnessing Fear: A Double-Edged Sword

Niccolò Machiavelli once famously stated that it’s better to be feared than loved. However, I beg to differ.

There are some people who thrive on instilling fear in others, resembling Machiavellian rulers. But here’s the catch: Machiavelli was addressing autocrats, where subjects had no choice but to comply, often facing dire consequences otherwise. Today, most people lack that kind of absolute power.

Governments or criminal organizations can indeed manipulate people using fear. However, in the realm of business, if you attempt to lead with fear, your best employees are likely to leave.

The major issue with ruling through fear is that it doesn’t inspire genuine respect. When someone fears you, they may do your bidding, but only until they can break free from your control. So, unless you have coercive force at your disposal, Machiavelli’s advice falls short: it’s wiser to be loved than feared.

Even if you possess such force, governing by fear carries significant risks, primarily the fact that people will despise you. For instance, the ancient Assyrian Empire primarily relied on fear for control, using gruesome stone carvings of torture as propaganda. Their message was clear: obey or face death. When this empire eventually crumbled, their capital was razed to the ground.

The same principle applies to parenting. You don’t want your child to live in fear of you, as kids raised in constant fear of their parents tend not to fare well in life. It’s acceptable to be firm, but tyranny should be avoided.

Now, here’s the exception to this rule. While ruling predominantly through fear isn’t advisable, a hint of fear can be beneficial in moderation.

Love and respect typically triumph over fear, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Someone who loves you, respects you, and has a slight fear of disappointing you is likely to be more loyal than someone who merely loves and respects you.

The key is to make it clear that consequences will follow betrayal. If an employee steals from you, fire them and ensure everyone knows why. If a friend betrays your trust, sever ties permanently. However, as long as someone treats you well, reward them generously.

How To Dominate Your Fears: Practical Steps

As we wrap up, let’s move forward to overcoming those fears that hold you back.

First, picture something in your life that you’ve been postponing, something that would significantly improve your situation once completed. It might be applying for a new job, asking for a raise, scheduling a medical procedure, or even starting a dating profile or buying an anniversary gift.

Now, imagine taking action on this task immediately after finishing this article. The satisfaction of having it done and being able to check it off your to-do list is a tantalizing thought.

However, we know it’s easier said than done. When fear creeps in, the simplest tasks can feel physically challenging. Your brain starts generating excuses to avoid it, and that’s where procrastination takes hold.

So, how do you combat these fears? The best strategy is to gradually acclimate yourself to discomfort. For instance, Tim Ferriss suggests lying down in a crowd or asking strangers for their phone numbers. John McAfee used to dress as a homeless person and panhandle, while James Altucher did stand-up comedy on the subway, all to confront their fears.

Setting deadlines can also be a powerful tool. Fear often leads to procrastination, so force yourself to act before a specific date.

Additionally, creates a motivating force in the opposite direction. Share your intentions with friends, which adds an element of shame if you fail to follow through. Your mind then weighs the fear of action against the shame of inaction, often pushing you toward action.

As you become accustomed to tackling your fears head-on, your life will undoubtedly improve. You’ll be able to take the necessary steps to enhance your life, even those you’ve been avoiding. This might include quitting a job, pursuing a new life in a different country, finding love, ending a toxic relationship, switching careers, launching a business, writing a book, or pursuing your dreams—whatever they may be.

Five years from now, your life could be ten times better than it is today—all it takes is a dose of courage.

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