We all have fears. Some of them we explicitly understand, while others manifest themselves as sleepless nights, panic attacks, anxiety or just a sense of “is this it?”.
I have found myself most stressed when I ignore the things that are lurking in the back of my mind. When I try to sweep my fears under the rug, this is when life does not feel right.
Fear, in first principles, is a biological process. It helps us perceive threats. When we see a potential thread, our Amygdala, part of the brain responsible for emotional processing, gets activated and evaluates the threat. The body also prepares to respond to the threat, and the sympathetic nervous system — the part that we don’t control — activates the “fight or flight” response.
When an individual encounters a threat, the brain immediately signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine. These hormones prepare the body for a rapid response by increasing heart rate, elevating blood pressure, and redirecting blood flow to essential areas such as the muscles and vital organs. Concurrently, processes that aren’t immediately essential, like digestion, are suppressed. Pupils dilate to enhance vision, bronchioles in the lungs expand to allow for increased oxygen intake, and glucose levels rise in the bloodstream to provide additional energy. Additionally, the senses become heightened, and awareness intensifies. This cascade of physiological changes ensures that the body is primed and ready to either confront the threat directly (“fight”) or evade it and seek safety (“flight”).
The human body’s reflexes and reactions to immediate threats, such as an oncoming car, are incredibly fast. When faced with such a danger, the body can initiate a series rapid physiological and neural changes to prepare for evasive action. The brain bypasses its usual processing pathways to elicit a faster response. The visual threat (the oncoming car) sends a signal to the brain, which then quickly processes this information and sends signals to the muscles and other body parts to react, such as by jumping out of the way.
Most of the situations we find ourselves in today are not life-or-death situations like predatory attacks. Our definition of “threats” has expanded beyond immediate physical dangers to encompass a range of psychological and societal pressures. For instance, impending deadlines, whether at work or in educational settings, instil a sense of urgency and tension, creating anxiety over potential failures or repercussions for not meeting expectations. Financial worries, fueled by the complexities of modern economies and personal responsibilities, generate stress as individuals grapple with meeting their basic needs, securing their future, or achieving particular lifestyle aspirations. Social anxieties arise in an age of digital communication and social media, where societal norms, fear of missing out, and the quest for social acceptance or validation can be overwhelming.
The psychological toll of this misalignment between ancient defence mechanisms and modern-day stressors cannot be understated. The physiological reactions meant to keep us safe can, ironically, become sources of anxiety themselves.
So what can we do? Well, one strategy that is transformative is to recalibrate our responses to modern stressors. Face what you fear in the modern world, because if you really think about it, our fears are trivial. Most of us are not facing gangs of armed men, natural predators, or life-threatening environmental hazards on a daily basis. Instead, we are often anxious about missed emails, social faux pas, or minor financial setbacks. By taking a step back and truly assessing the nature of our fears, we can recognize their often exaggerated scope in our minds. It’s essential to contextualize these fears within the larger tapestry of human history and evolution.
Once we realize that many of our modern anxieties are not equivalent to the immediate physical threats our ancestors faced, we can begin to treat them with a more appropriate level of concern.
To close out, I am reminded of this quote:
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.Fight Club.