Human emotion is one of the most fascinating aspects of our make-up. From positive to negative, our emotions have a say in our decision-making, the life choices we make, and how we process information. Once upon a time, the emotional brain was believed to be separate from the thinking brain and abiding emotion meant throwing logical thinking into chaos.
Today, we know better.
Neuroscience uncovered the importance of cultivating the kind of balanced thinking that combines logic with emotional consideration. Head and heart, right?
It’s through the cultivation of emotional intelligence that we learn the role of emotions and how to use them to our advantage. We don’t have to be afraid of fear and we can reshape our future by listening to our emotions and deciphering what they have to tell us. And that begins with how and what we think.
Negative emotions, although not our first choice, have something to tell us. These emotions demand our attention by stealing the spotlight and (sometimes) hijacking the brain until we pay attention. Anger demands to be heard, injustice demands to be righted, and fear demands to be recognized. By determining what triggers an emotion, we are better able to cope and form pathways that encourage us to step back for a minute before we react. Remember counting to ten before responding? Rudimentary (and an effective start), but the same idea.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at fear, that emotion that begets many others living under its umbrella like intolerance, rage, and despair. While we wade through this worldwide pandemic, many fears rise to the surface. Some may be familiar (job loss) or brand new (wearing a face mask), but if we stop to analyze where our negative response comes from, we grow our self-awareness.
In the rooms of AA, acronyms are big and fear is a particular favorite of mine.
Forget Everything And Run
Face Everything And Recover
Note that the acronym indicates a choice, and that is telling of our relationship with fear.
A built-in defense mechanism, fear allows our animal nature to detect threats and act accordingly. It’s not fear that disrupts us, it’s our reaction to it. After all, fear is a tool. It is to our benefit that we can assess, reason, and avoid acting strictly out of emotion. It is also often to our detriment that we have the ability to remember past experiences that can influence current decisions, as indicated in the symptoms of PTSD.
Studies show that our brain and consequently, our nervous system, do not know the difference between a current threat and one that is recalled. Our systems trigger the same defense mechanisms, either way. Since fear is a stress response, chronic stress, or living in chronic fear, poses its own myriad health problems.
Now let’s talk about how we process the fear response via emotion.
Dictionaries define fear as: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Let’s take anger, which can be described as a fear response. Anger may result from wrongdoing (threat to integrity or safety), infringement (threat to rights or entitlements), pain (threat to peace and comfort), or ignorance (threat to status quo or belief system). When we get angry, our physical response readies us for action – if we decide to take it. This is the moment we stop, assess where the anger comes from, then (count to ten when in the moment) process it in constructive ways that support self-awareness.
Maybe that means questioning why we feel threatened, or strive to understand something we don’t, or come to terms with our losses. Anger can be the fear catalyst to explore deeper emotions. Why am I angry? Am I afraid? Of what? Why?
Can we break these fears into categories to better understand them? I think we can. Lately, humans have not been so good to each other, and fear has been the good guy/bad guy here. Fear might be praised, ballyhooed, condemned, or shared. It’s all in your perception, in what you say to your brain, and in which connections you make.
Understanding fear puts it to work for us so we can analyze our response and not dismiss our fear with a notion that it’s silly, or something similarly damaging. Recognize fear, ask it what it wants.
- Threat to integrity or safety. Especially true today, our personal safety is paramount and necessary for continued survival. After all, you wouldn’t step off a ledge if there was nothing but rock below. You may peer over the edge at first, but then you step away to reduce your risk, your slowing heart rate tells you when it’s safe, and fear kept you from walking off in the first place. Listen to your body’s queues, most of the time it will tell you what you need to know. Learn to listen.
- Threat to rights or entitlements. We see this fear modeled in behaviors related to injustice, perceived or experienced. Most times, experienced injustices are vastly different from those we perceive. Our brain will run wild with perception if we let it. We see this fear in those who think caring for and about others is a weakness or a compromise. Confidence in your own self-worth, the one that isn’t debated or dictated by a government, gives rise to emotions like compassion and empathy. We all deserve the same chance and we aren’t lessened when we freely give others theirs.
- Threat to peace and comfort. Fear of the unknown is huge here. It’s the underlying fear that we don’t know what’s next that determines whether we press forward or retreat. We weigh these decisions by assessing the risk and the value of our peace. Our peace and comfort may be threatened because we are unwilling to accept our own mortality, or we may rely on an omnipresent protector. But peace isn’t found outside of yourself. Lesson one.
- Threat to status quo or belief system. For some, science is a real threat, probably because it doesn’t seek to sugarcoat the answers and doesn’t always tell you what you want to hear. When we perceive a threat to our beliefs, we can either double-down or step back, ask questions, find more information. We can sit inside the paper box we’ve constructed or we can tear down the sides and look around. When we find our common ground, it’s not difficult to see another human for what they are – another human.
As humans with somewhere around 100,000,000,000 (100 BILLION!) brain cells, it takes some time to form new connections. Hebbian theory, named for Canadian neuropsychologist David O. Hebb, tells us that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the thoughts we think stick, unless we unstick them.
How about a parable to illustrate the point?
“An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…
‘A fight is going on inside me,’ he said to the boy.
‘It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed,
arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies,
false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope,
serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy,
generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
This same fight is going on inside you
and inside every other person, too.’
The grandson thought about it for a minute
and then asked his grandfather,
‘Which wolf will win?’
The old chief simply replied,
‘The one you feed.”
So how can you improve your emotional intelligence?
Here are a few resources:
- Take an Emotional Intelligence test to assess your current level of understanding.
- Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence: Link to Abe’s Books, a great used book seller.
- Read more about the amygdala, the part of the limbic system responsible for the fear response