You’ve been afraid before. Completely terrified. Remember that feeling? When all could be lost? That unshakable intensity that kills all your logic? Of course you do. You’ll never forget it. You were so scared that your mind and body refused to listen to reason. Nothing you did could shake it off. You were so scared you lost control of you. And that becomes just as scary as the immediate cause.
We all have an idea of what it means to be this scared, and while I can describe it with words, being in the middle of that fear hurricane is a completely separate deal. It’s all-encompassing and it changed your life. But people’s responses to this intense fear are different. And for a vast majority of us, we respond in two distinct ways. For some, it’s a hyper-response: adrenaline, sweat, anxiety, shaking. You might be angry and lash out or you might want to run a million miles, but you’re highly activated. The other group have a hypo-response and feel the opposite: your body shuts down. There might be an immediate numbness or a detachment. You still recognise on some level that what’s happening is scary, but you shut off any real connection to it.
What’s similar about fear-based responses is that they’re located in the body.
This physical response is necessary because we might need to react really quickly to something that causes us fear and thinking about it would delay that response. So what is happening is that something takes us out of our comfort zone and we get anxious/nervous/scared. As this escalates (and it can happen quickly or slowly), we can approach a state that can kill us – it is literally a highway to the danger zone.
Top Gun references aside, this is very serious. Acute stress and anxiety causes heart attacks and strokes: death. Luckily, our bodies know this and they have two ways they respond. The first is to plug a heap of energy into the situation (hyper-respond) so we can fight or flight and hopefully return to a place where there’s no perceived threat. The other is to hypo-respond and shut down our minds and bodies – like a kill-switch so that our minds and bodies don’t self-destruct (heart attack or stroke).
So these extreme responses are actually perfectly normal and healthy responses to being intensely afraid. In fact, I would argue that if you’ve had hyper- or hypo-response symptoms, there was almost certainly a fear underlying it – even if didn’t know exactly what you were afraid of.
The thing about fear is that it occurs 100% in the minds of the person experiencing it. Now don’t worry – the last thing I’m going to say is that just because it’s subjective, it means that it’s not real. Quite the opposite – nothing is as real as the experience of something. What the subjectiveness of fear means, however, is that to change our perspective can help deal with fear. At the very least, it can help us deal with the fear of being afraid.
To illustrate the subjectiveness of fear, we only need to imagine a situation where someone else is happy doing something we’re terrified of. Public speaking is good example. In fact, more people are afraid of public speaking than they are of their own death. And as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, this means that most people would rather choose to be laid out in the casket, rather than having to give the eulogy.
Jokes aside, the point is that there isn’t anything that’s objectively scary. Some people are afraid of public speaking, others live on it. Some people are afraid of rejection, others don’t care what people think. Even if we could find something that everyone was scared of, I doubt we’d be convinced that it was anything in that thing that actually created our fear.
So then, we should look at the reason why you’re afraid of one thing, but not another. Or more to the point, why does being afraid of some things create an uncontrolled reaction, but other times we can deal with it? Why aren’t you afraid of talking about your serious sexual trauma, but you’re terrified of public speaking? Why are you exhilarated by wrestling crocodiles, but scared that you might let your family down? There’s actually a surprisingly simple reason for this and it has to do with whether you think you can cope with the thing in front of you.
This is because whether you think you can cope with a threat is directly related to how close you’re going to get to the danger zone where your body needs to step in by hyper- or hypo-responding. And this is where we find the answer to why some things cause an extreme fear response, and others don’t…
Simply: you’re scared about losing control.
And this might seem fairly straight forward for those who are lucky enough not to be in a place where a hyper- or hypo-responses regularly come out of nowhere. But for those with severe anxiety issues, past trauma and/or PTSD, this might provide some light on what’s going on. Something in the situation or thought or memory that triggers this response has linked to a fear that you’ll lose control of something integral: your sanity or your life.
The consequence is that you mind thinks it’s shooting into the danger zone and your body intervenes so quickly the whole process seems instantaneous.
Whether your fear and physical response is as severe as those in PTSD or severe anxiety, there are proven ways to help stay in your comfort zone and not rise uncontrollably into the danger zone. The most effective in my experience has been therapy that concentrates on our physical responses. I won’t tell you what would be best for you, but if you have regular hyper- or hypo-responses that bother you, ask your GP or therapist.
For most of us, being scared is something we only feel occasionally. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that sometimes we should be afraid. While fear is all in your head, sometimes we face a genuine threat and ignoring that is certainly not what I’m advocating. But the next time you feel yourself panicking beyond control or shutting down completely, spend a second thinking about what it is you feel you can’t cope with, and whether coping could be as simple as just going through with it.