Psychology Addict # 45 | Discussing Day-to-Day Fear
‘I am finding hard to read Emma’s intentions at this point.’ Natan said while I was chomping on my snack. ‘We had a fun time during our last date, but then she went a bit cold’. He sighed. ‘She still sends me messages, though. I just want to know whether she wants to take this, whatever this is, to the next level.’ There was a pause. Then, he continued ‘I want to be able to pick up the phone, call her, and book a date whenever I feel like hearing her voice or seeing her’. He seemed to have said everything he wanted. So, I asked ‘why don’t you just tell her all this? She seems very approachable.’ Natan promptly replied. ‘Because I am afraid of rejection’.
It is common knowledge that fear is a normal behavioural and physiological reaction to physical and emotional threat. As a product of the limbic system 1, this unpleasant feeling has been with us, animals, for over 200 million years 2. And, while fear has played a crucial part in the survival of humans as a species, it has also taken its toll on our existence, as it is one of the foremost aspects underlying our suffering. Fear, as much as sadness, is the most common cause of mental distress reported by people in therapy 3.
The Demands of Modern Life
Psychologists often discuss how the pressures of modern life itself might have contributed to how widespread fear has become among us. Twenge, for example, discusses that in spite of the unparalleled improvement seen in wealth and physical health in developed nations such as the U.S, a greater number of people currently report experiencing higher levels of anxiety (a manifestation of fear) than 50 years ago 4.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it is often argued that this is due to the fact that the world we live in, nowadays, is exceptionally different from that in which we evolved. For instance, up to only 40.000 years ago our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers living in small clans. But, within this timespan, humans have witnessed far more cultural progress than in the preceding centuries 5. Without a doubt four thousand decades is a huge amount of time. Nevertheless, in terms of biological evolution, this frame of time has not been long enough to ‘match’ our emotional systems to the cultural evolution our species has undergone 6. An explanation for such discrepancy is that from that point to now (40.000 years ago) the cultural progress we have witnessed no longer depended upon genetic changes 7.
This disparity, however, has not done our mental health many favours, because with regard to the neuropsychology of our emotions, we are more similar than not to our ancestors. Or, how psychologists often like to echo ‘modern men are stone-agers in the fast lane’ 8. A mismatch that becomes all the more clear when we learn, for instance, that agoraphobia considerably increased as the industrial revolution took place. Consequently giving rise to a sense of insecurity resulted from the new threatening, crowded urban environments that offered little resemblance to the peaceful rural areas that used to be people’s bases 9.
What Do You Fear?
But, we don’t need to travel back to the 1800’s to look for the emergence of different types of fear. Just now, in the 2000’s, FOMO has not only made its official appearance in our lives, but also became epidemic amongst the adult population of developed countries 10. I find the fear of missing out an incredibly relatable instance of how our emotions can be destabilized by the arrival of a new cultural phenomenon, and one that is not even threatening per se. We, humans, are paradoxically strong and fragile.
We fear failing, we fear rejection, we fear death, we fear losing our freedom, but we also fear freedom itself. In fact, Soren Kierkegaard, an existential philosopher, proposed that our anxieties and fears are a result of freedom. He posited that these emotions are the actual price we pay for being free 11. Meaning that it is through fear and anxiety that we experience the uncertainty of the choices we make in life. I agree very much with this rationale. Look at Natan, letting Emma know he would like to be in a relationship with her might cost him their friendship. Contrarily, not saying anything may also cost him a fulfilling love story. Which decision to make?
Life is dotted with such dilemmas; to move, or not to move? To be, or not to be? To marry or, not to marry? To invest, or not? To divorce? Decisions of which outcomes all sit at the edge of the unknown, and whenever the unknown makes us feel unsafe or uncertain fear arises. Martin Heidergger stated that rather than a product of development and personality, fear and anxiety are rather inescapable emotions, which are fundamental to human life.
True, although not entirely. Some of us are particularly more prone to feeling more fearsome and anxious than others: those who rate high in neuroticism.
Among the Big Five scientific model of personality traits, neuroticism is a primary dimension of negative emotions. This means that individuals who rate high in this trait are more sensitive to emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness. Further, there are two important aspects to neuroticism that makes the trait more relevant to our discussion, withdrawal (linked to brain systems that regulate behavioural inhibition), and volatility (associated to systems that regulate the flight or fight response) 12
The former is characterized by fearfulness and anxiety, and it is a facet that leads the individual to retreat from what is perceived as possible negative situations. In Natan’s case this would prevent him talking to Emma about committing to a relationship, because he foresees a probable rejection. The latter aspect involves irritability and hostility, and it is also linked to greater focus on negative experiences. Such aspect in Natan’s scenario would tend to fade away the nice, pleasant moments he has been having with Emma making the image of a ‘no’ from her rather vivid. Following this speculation, in the event of Emma rejecting his proposition their entire experience could really leave Natan grief-stricken; perhaps leading him to even regret the whole experience.
Indentifying Negative Thoughts & Situations
High levels of neuroticism are also linked to low self-esteem, especially when it coincides with introversion. Moreover, it can also negatively influence life’s perception in terms of work satisfaction, happiness in relationships, and personal health. All in all highly neurotic individuals are more prone to experiencing fear in the forms of insecurity, jealousy and anticipation.
Having the understanding that you have such traits facilitates to put things into perspective. We all are neurotic to a certain level. Also, there are certain circumstances in life which might push us towards greater scores within this dimension (e.g. dealing with dishonest people), at the same time that others promote calm and inner peace (e.g.working in a field that makes us feel comfortable). Being able to identify them is a huge step forward on the way to properly deal with fearsome expectations as well as to adopt measures that make you feel more stable overall.
In general, discussions about fear tend to swerve in the direction of phobias, psychosis and other severe mental disorders. As much interest as I have in those I also like to examine our day-to-day apprehensions, as they lay the foundation of our subjective well-being. ‘I am afraid of failing my exams’, ‘I am terrified of seeing her at the party’, ‘I am concerned the project will not succeed’. These are all (automatic) thoughts that pop into our head on a daily basis, we all have them. However, for some of us, such thoughts can really be crippling.
I was ready to order another tea when a happy looking couple walked in the nearly empty coffee-bar, which caused Natan to say. ‘Look at him. I will never be like him’. Natan looked very disappointed. Then I asked him. ‘How does that make you feel?’, He replied that he felt fearful that he might never be happy, that he might never have someone to love. And this is the thing about automatic thoughts, they are often distorted. Nevertheless we respond to them as if they are the ultimate truth. So, what is the solution for this?
|Well, first is to be able to identify them. Then onto evaluate the relationship between them and the emotion they elicit. Because, as you know, what you think impacts how you feel. So, whenever you experience that sort of fear/anxiety, or even sadness for that matter, ask yourself ‘what was going through my mind?’. Oftentimes all we need in order to feel better is a change of thought.|
To Fight or Not To Fight?
Of course Natan’s low mood was a huge contributor to that overstatement. But, there was indeed one thing that might have been true. He might never lead a happy life as Emma’s partner. And that is what was bringing him down. Consequently, I presented the following scenario to him: ‘Look Natan, there are two ways for you to deal with this: leave things as they are and cope with the uncertainty for as long as it lasts, irrespective of the outcome. Or, talk to Emma and let her know about your feelings’. He looked pale. I continued, ‘I suspect you are fearing your fear Natan.’ Do you realize that Emma’s rejection doesn’t take away the possibility of you being happy in life, and of having someone to love in the future?’ He nodded. ‘So?’, I gently enquired.
A few days later I learnt that Natan went over to Emma’s flat, where they talked and Emma told him that she didn’t really love him ‘like that’. He said it really stung to hear that, and also that he didn’t remember the last time he felt so embarrassed. Although, when the hurting subsided, Natan told me, ‘I felt stronger for being proactive about my emotions and challenging my fear’. He said ‘it turns out rejection is not as painful as I had anticipated’.
The fears that permeate our daily lives can sure hold us back by limiting what and how we experience in the world around us. There is, however, one thing that we should always keep in mind whenever we feel tempted to refrain from facing our insecurities: as much as mother nature has equipped us with the means to flee from our frights, it has also gifted us with the means to fight them.
3,11 Barker, M. Vossler, A. Langdridge, D. (2010) Understandying Couselling and Psychotherapy, London, Sage.
4 Twenge, J.M (2006) Generation Me, New York: Simon and Schuster.
5,7 Diamond, J. M. (1991). The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee. Radius.
9 Pilgrim, D. (2017) Key Concepts in Mental Health, London, SAGE.
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