Fear is a symptom of numerous mental disorders, including anxiety, depression and phobias. We blanket fear as something terrible, something we should avoid or overcome.
But can fear positively shape us as human beings, conditioning our responses and teaching us the consequences of behaviour? Could fear be good for you?
Let’s give you a new way of thinking about fear. Let’s delve into fear’s complexities and understand why having fear isn’t all that bad – and why, in some cases, you should embrace it.
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What is fear?
Before you can decide if fear is good or bad, you have to understand what it is. By definition, it’s “an unpleasant feeling triggered by the perception of danger, real or imagined”.
But like many of things that have to do with the brain, it’s not quite that simple. Fear is a tricky human emotion. It can stop you completely in your tracks, paralyzing you with terror. It can hold you back from achieving your dreams, and most of all, it can keep you small. It’s a natural, powerful and primitive emotion.
You can break fear up into two primary reactions:
The primal side of fear comes from a survival mechanism, hardwired from birth. When we confront something that’s perceived to be threatening, our bodies tend to respond in similar ways. Our hands will tremble, we’ll sweat, our heartbeat will race, and we become extremely alert. It links to the famous flight or fight response where our bodies prepare to stand our ground or run for the hills.
When it comes to an emotional response, fear differs from person to person. It causes a similar chemical reaction in our brains to the feeling of excitement, which is why we sometimes get a thrill out being scared.
Think of the adrenalin rush we get from a roller-coaster. It’s a sensation some of us love, and some of us loathe. For many, that feeling of not being in control is unbearable. These are the people who are wary of scary movies, avoiding fear wherever possible.
Fear to the Rescue
It can be difficult to rush into situations that bring on the dreaded feeling of fear. But here are just some of the reasons why fear can be a friend, rather than foe.
Fear can keep you safe.
There’s a reason we spend our lives, particularly our childhoods, being conditioned by fear. It gives us that uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right, that we should be alert and aware of our surroundings. Fear tells us we are in danger.
According to Psychology Today, fear is often imagined. We tend to think something is scary or going to be difficult and then we’re pleasantly surprised when it all turns out okay. It is here that fear and stress become interlinked. Stress is fear-based and often induced by a “what if” type of thinking, rather than the reality at hand. We worry things won’t turn out, and we’re scared of specific outcomes. Often it’s this fear, this stress, that stops us from trying in the first place.
Fear is complex.
It can even boost your immune system. I know – this seems crazy, but according to a study at Coventry University, it’s true. Researchers obtained blood samples from 32 healthy male and female subjects aged between 20 and 26 before, during and after watching an 83-minute horror film. They noted that there were significant increases in peripheral circulating leukocytes, haemoglobin concentration and haematocrit in response to the film.
In other words, researchers found an increase in activated white blood cells, the type of cells we need to fight disease. Who knew watching horror movies could save you from disease?
Fear can be exciting.
As we know, the emotional and physical response to fear is similar to that of excitement. It will differ based on your personality, but sometimes, even little things like putting yourself out your comfort zone will induce fear and excitement. These are all beneficial things that will likely make you a better version of yourself. The adrenalin rush we get from fear can improve our performance, keeping our minds (and bodies) sharp.
Fear gives you a natural high.
Along with the dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin our bodies release serotonin when we’re afraid. Otherwise known as “the happy chemical”, serotonin regulates mood and social behaviour along with appetite, digestion, sleep and even memory. It directly correlates to a feeling of happiness.
Fear helps you focus.
Even if the fear we’re experiencing is from an imagined outcome, it induces a sense of focus keeping us present. In a world littered with distractions, this is pretty powerful.
Fear gives you perspective and clarity.
Fear can help you understand what you genuinely care about, where your passions or emotions lie. When you feel those flutters in your stomach, and your heart starts to race, it’s your body telling you you’re afraid. But, it’s also your body telling you that you care. Taking the plunge and embracing the pursuit of your happiness is riddled with feelings of fear. Fear will help you innovate, help you succeed.
Why should we embrace fear?
While fear can be crippling, it can also empower us. There’s something immensely gratifying about learning to own your fear. Embracing everything good about it can be life-changing. It doesn’t mean you should continuously put your life in danger, tackling fear needs to come with a good dose of common sense.
When treating phobias, an extreme version of fear, doctors expose patients repeatedly to their deepest terrors. For an arachnophobe, this means consistently engaging with spiders. Over time this eliminates the “fear of a fear”. Facing the experiences or things that scare you the most can break the cycle, removing the perceived horror you’ve created in your mind.
Bring it On
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do”.
You’re probably more familiar with the summarised version of this one, in other words, “do one thing every day that scares you”.
The more you listen to fear, the more power you give it. The more you face it, the more power you gain. Systematically exposing yourself to things that scare you, will propel you forward, making you a better version of yourself.
People often “face their fears” through travel. It’s a situation that automatically rips you out of your comfort zone, inducing a sense of fear and excitement. It’s this underlying uncertainty that keeps us coming back for more. The more we overcome it, the bolder we become and the more we want to explore.
Ultimately, fear is always going to be part of our lives. In some shape or another, it’s moulded us into the people we are and will continue to test us, improving our odds with each victory.
Fear keeps us curious while seeking thrills, and pushing the envelope offers a comforting sense of self-satisfaction. The flood of adrenalin will keep us coming back for more, and what’s the harm in that?
It looks like fear makes us better versions of ourselves.
Written by Emma Dittmer