Run or Fight?
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2016 (Edited March 4, 2022)
We feel fear. This is normal. Sometimes fear is appropriate, warning of danger. Other times, however, fear is learned from a past that no longer applies to the present.
The conscious mind is limited. When we multi-task, we bounce back and forth between single tasks. Our mind only focuses on one thing. Consciousness is like a flashlight. The light only illuminates the objects the beam is pointed at. When we focus attention on an emotion, that emotion is strengthened, given vitality from our acknowledgment. The strengthened emotion casts other feelings in the shadows to the instance of emotion we determine worthy of our fixed attention.
When a stranger triggers fear, the mind automatically focuses on the danger—a life preserving function. Danger commandeers resources to preserve life. When threatened, we don’t need frivolous information bogging down immediate action. Fear screams, and biological functions react.
"There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them."
Often feelings of fear are appropriate, directing attention to legitimate dangers is essential for our existence and well-being. We respond to the fear by addressing the threats through retreating, changing directions or stubborn confrontation.
Fears and experiential learning
Unfortunately, many fears are learned, subject to errors of perception--fears are felt, rousing responses but the trigger is hollow, posing no danger. Our over-reaction is justified from the vantage point of the past. But in the present, the reaction fails, pushing for avoidance or attack where friendly contact would be appropriate. Unjustified fear prompts unjustified reactions.
These learned biases further interfere with smooth integration of new experience. Our learning is hindered. Unannounced biases contaminate and intrude on feeling affect, creating errors, and motivating faulty action. We then justify the action, deny culpability and fail to grasp the personal blunder, reinforcing the toxic behaviors.
"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."
Childhood Trauma and Adult Fear
Maybe serious childhood hurts are to blame, or perhaps a trifling event began a sequence of actions and reactions, compounding an error that now is disrupting our life. We all live in a present molded by pasts—both pleasant and painful.
A skilled therapist may hold our hand through new interpretations of the past that shine on the damaging perceptions, but even then, Changing is arduous, requiring applying mental brakes when we feel the impulse to press the accelerator. Therapy isn’t available for everyone. Many fear therapy, think it is unnecessary or lack access to skilled help. I still retain hope for their recovery. They can still heal, moving past the destructive actions and journey into new frontiers of experience.
"Unfortunately, many fears are learned, subject to errors of perception—fears are felt, rousing responses but the trigger is hollow, posing no danger."
Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness
Self- reflection on feelings felt (especially fears) invites new insights. When viewing felt experience from a dispassionate distance, we discover our unrealistic fears stemming from unproven biases. We must take note of these discoveries; write them down and periodically review our findings.
With new insights, we begin a new sequence of events, redirecting action to more realistic calculations of experience. New wisdom better equips our mind (and emotions) to make constructive decisions. Moving forward in the face of fear requires courage, but when we recognize the fear is unjustified, it loses potency.
Knowing a trigger poses no threat, we can adjust the light of our attention to opportunities—the ones we previously avoided. No longer imprisoned by miscalculated danger we can engage life more fully, crossing confining barriers and discovering a bountiful rich world that once was hidden. But warning, we can’t always charge forward, ignoring biological signals of disaster, many fears are justified, in these cases, the wise choice may be to simply turn and run.
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