Monday, March 24, 2008

The Power of Fear

We all feel fear. The brave just know how to rise above the power of fear. Many people misunderstand courage because they think it is the absence of fear. Yet, as Ambrose Redmoon said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Or as stated in popular movies, “The brave are simply those with the clearest vision of what is before them… It isn’t brave if you’re not scared.”

Fear is actually the first emotion we feel when we are born. We are forced to leave a quiet, warm, dark, nurturing environment to enter a world that is cold, loud and bright. Crying is our first reaction to fear. As we get older, we just keep adding to our library of fears.

As children, we naturally fear the unknown. We started life with a fear of the light and we quickly learn to fear the dark. In both cases, we are just afraid of the opposite of what we are accustomed to. Expected events allow us to be secure and unexpected events provoke fear. Fear only has power if we give it power. When we turn out the lights, nothing has changed except our perception of the environment. We become afraid of what we cannot see and we imagine things that aren’t even there. The unknown is only frightening because we don’t what to expect so we let our imagination create an altered perception of reality.

The most powerful fear is a threat to our survival. We naturally fear death because we perceive death as the opposite of survival. Yet, throughout life the fear of non-survival encompasses multiple dimensions. As children, we fear the potential loss of our caretakers because we are unable to survive independently. My first childhood memory is a fear of survival. I was born in Germany and my family moved to Washington, DC when I was three years old. Before we left, I was told that my caretaker (who was German) was not coming with us and then I was left at a stranger’s house the day before the journey. I cried all night and I was inconsolable. Every person I depended on for survival was gone and I thought they were leaving me behind.

In high school when peer pressure rewards popularity, we fear rejection because survival is synonymous with acceptance. In corporate America, success is expressed through recognition and promotions. The lack of survival is the loss of our jobs. Corporate Presidents of public organizations define survival in terms of stock prices and P/E ratios and entrepreneurs define survival as sustainability of the enterprise. Married couples fear divorce and single people fear being alone and unloved. These fears can lead to irrational choices. Some people are so afraid of being alone that they go from one relationship to another. Searching for perfect love is secondary to finding a secure relationship. In inner cities, survival can be a matter of life and death and in every city the lack of survival is the inability to pay our rent or mortgage and outstanding bills.

Survival is always relative to the person defining it. In Hollywood, good reviews or box office receipts define survival of the fittest but the least fit still have incomes that are many multiples greater the normal family living on Main Street. Survival is based on perception. In the book, The Power of the Kabbalah, the author describes a situation where one person had a paper net worth of $15 million and lost $10 million through poorly performing stocks. The second person had a net worth of $20,000 and through a stock price increase, his net worth increased to $80,000. Clearly, the first person has much more money but the second person felt wealthier as a result of the unexpected gain.

Survival for some is psychological rather than physical. Being on the verge of a nervous breakdown dramatically affects the survival of our sanity. Unhappiness and low self-esteem also threaten our psychological survival. Ruts and routines can represent the death of our dreams.

Some people tell me that they have few fears, but I often wonder why we wouldn’t feel afraid. Fear seems to be more “normal” than the absence of fear. Fear results from uncertainty and we live in an uncertain world. Everything we take for granted could be gone tomorrow. We don’t have crystal balls that will tell us our future. It is natural to be afraid that the future will present problems that will be difficult to handle. Marianne Williamson says, “All negativity derives from fear. When someone is angry, they are afraid. When someone is rude, they are afraid. When someone is manipulative, they are afraid. When someone is cruel, they are afraid.”

Is fear really bad? Sometimes fear motivates us to succeed and provides us with the energy we need to protect ourselves. Fear also eliminates unhealthy activities, such as smoking or drug addiction. Some leaders believe that it is better to be feared than loved. Fear is translated to respect. However, do we really want other people’s behavior to be motivated by fear? In Nazi Germany, the fear of life and death kept Hitler in power. As a result of fear, freedom of speech was eradicated for Germans, and Jews, Christians, Gypsies, non-Aryans and homosexuals were murdered. Fear forced the capitulation of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Holland, France, Poland, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Albania, Romania and Russia.

Some institutions manipulate people by exaggerating their fears, rather than by helping people appease their fears; and some religions use the fear of “hell” as a form of indoctrination. I once read a religious pamphlet that showed a picture of the collapse of the World Trade Centers and inside the pamphlet it said: “What if you had died in the World Trade Center on September 11th? Are you sure you wouldn’t have gone to hell? You know that you are a sinner and the Bible states that all sinners go to hell. Even though you don’t deserve eternal life, you can go to heaven if you accept [our beliefs].” Believe as they do and your fear of hell is gone; agreement offers the reward of eternal life – the golden ticket to Heaven. The pamphlet even said that good deeds had no effect on whether you were selected for Heaven. There was only one way in and it was through their organization. I’ve never understood why religious organizations would use fear to gain acceptance. Religion is supposed to be about love, compassion and non-judgment; it is not about exaggerating someone’s fears to obtain conformity.

Children respond to fear by crying and many adults react to fear by becoming paralyzed physically, intellectually, spiritually or emotionally. Action overcomes fear but if we give power to our fears, we may be afraid to pursue our dreams. The fear of failure is often greater than the dream of success. The fear of rejection from potential employers can imprison us in secure jobs that are unfulfilling. The fear of being rejected romantically can cause us to stay in stagnating and abusive relationships. The fear of the unknown can create its own prison.

If we have low self-esteem, we can also be afraid of success. If we don’t believe we deserve success, subconsciously we can create failures as a way of balancing our external environment with our internal self-worth. Failure is more comfortable than success that seems underserved. For example, if certain individuals feel that they do not deserve love, they can “purposely” sabotage relationships that are positive. If someone feels that a promotion is threatening, he or she may “purposely” alienate an important client.

When Franklin Roosevelt said, “the only fear is fear itself,” he was making the insightful observation that fear can paralyze an economy. Fear forces non-action, which can snowball and create a downward spiral that leads to economic disaster. Recovery requires investment and spending, which increase in an environment of optimism and decline dramatically in response to uncertainty and fear. If citizens hold on tightly to their money by hiding it under mattresses, the economic multipliers cease to exist. One dollar spent can result in five dollars added to the GNP (depending on the proportion of saving to spending). One dollar under the mattress adds nothing to the GNP.

Fear is just an illusion. The future is going to happen regardless of what we think about it. The presence of fear can only make the future worse and can negatively affect events that could turn positive through strength. Fear just reduces self-confidence, which creates its own failure. This resulting failure then reinforces the initial fear and causes additional failure. Thus, the presence of fear merely sets up a downward spiral that never had to exist in the first place.

During the Great Recession (2001-2004), my day-to-day existence was monopolized by fear because I wasn’t sure that my business could survive the downturn. Looking back, the contracts that saved the company would have happened with or without my fear. The only difference is that I didn’t know the future before it happened. I merely created a negative state of mind that was completely unnecessary. Sometimes we just need to believe that the future will be positive when events are uncertain. Optimism creates its own reality and ensures that we do not needlessly suffer by imagining scenarios that will never happen.

Some fears are so powerful that we are unable to face them directly. Fortunately, the physical structure of the brain allows us to face our worst fears without avoidance or paralysis. In our dreams, we face our fears in non-threatening scenarios. For example, the fear of failure is often represented by dreaming that we have to take a final exam after we have forgotten to attend the class. When we wake up, we know that the dream isn’t real but our psyche faced the fear of failure without encountering a disastrous result. We can learn about our fears by studying our dreams. If we end up passing the test, our dream is telling us that we believe we will succeed in spite of our fears. If we can avoid taking the test, it tells us that we do not believe we will encounter the actions that could result in failure. If we fail the test, our subconscious believes that we will face an upcoming failure but if the failure is accepted in the dream, it probably means that we believe that we will be able to survive the failure in real life. Our dreams can also mitigate our fears through temporary wish fulfillment. If we are afraid that we might not meet someone special, we can meet that person in our dreams. Subconsciously, our fears are reduced in the dream state, which can help reduce our fears when we are awake.

I used to think that I was fearless because I was not afraid of death. If death is the worst that can happen, then what could be perceived as fearful? Yet, suffering through a crisis, adversity or hardship can be much worse than the end of our existence. When I was 16, I fell through a glass table and my arm completely sliced open. As I fell, my mind went into shock so I felt no pain. I stayed in a state of shock until the arm was stitched. I never had to experience the pain of the injury. Another time, I swallowed a hot potato and there was so much pain in my throat that I fainted. I remember the pain for only an instant and then I was automatically in the dream state. These experiences allowed me to learn that physically, my body had a built-in mechanism to save me from suffering. Naturally, our bodies may respond to excruciating pain by forcing shock or a state of coma. If we had to experience the pain without these mechanisms, the suffering is much worse. Death is the release of the soul from the human body and at the moment of death, we are freed from physical trauma. The pain of suffering can be much worse than the release that happens at death.

Other people can help mitigate feelings of fear. When two people face a threatening event together, the fear seems more bearable. Two people walking down a dark alley feel safer than being alone. In battle, the stronger the army, the greater the chance for success. In corporate America, a shared vision is stronger than unilateral decision-making. A family unit is stronger than children or parents on their own. Even alone, the power of a connection to God or some higher power makes us feel that we can survive any tragedy.

Love overcomes fear because they are opposites. When we love, we are not afraid; or as the Bible says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.” If we love ourselves, we know that we have the strength to overcome the fears that can paralyze us. The desire to make ourselves happy is stronger than the fear that external events will cripple us. When we love God, we feel protected from our fears and when we love others, we know that this love is more important than our fears. Love unites us, while fear separates us; our love brings us together, while our fears tear us apart.

Fear can lead to serious health problems. When people feel afraid, their stress level increases and their breathing becomes more rapid. That is why meditation, yoga or deep breathing can alleviate feelings of fear. Exercise, massages, laughter, music or enjoying simple pleasures can also alleviate anxiety. Fear is often internalized without verbal expression. When an emotion is imprisoned without release, it can seriously affect a person’s well being. The most extreme fear can actually cause physical paralysis or a catatonic state. There have also been cases of hair turning white in response to fear. The expression that someone can be frightened to death is not fantasy. After an earthquake, a 37-year old woman was jolted from bed and ran into her child’s room to flee. Her house was not damaged and nothing broke. Her husband later found her on the floor of her child’s room, bleeding from the nose and mouth. She was dead. According to the death reports, the quake had frightened her to death. In 1991, 100 people died from heart attacks triggered by fear and stress during the Persian Gulf War.

An article in Newsweek reported that fear is one of the most dangerous “diseases” because it can impair immunity, interrupt sleep, and exacerbate everything from acne to ulcers. LA psychiatrist Carole Lieberman reported “people who are anxious drink and eat more. They have more accidents. They’re more likely to get colds or suffer heart attacks.” 19 million Americans suffer from fear-related disorders during normal periods and that number explodes during times of national crisis. Cardiologist Jonathan Steinberg says that increased fear and stress can make people more vulnerable to infections and can cause cancer. The physical problems associated with fear are different for every person.

The safest way to deal with anxiety is to be honest about the circumstances that cause fear. The verbal expression of anxiety is the most effective way to reduce it. If we face our greatest fears directly and can accept the worst consequences, we will be able to survive by rising above our fears.

It is easy to understand that fear is irrational when someone is afraid of external conditions that do not affect others in the same way. For example, some people have a fear of heights, flying in an airplane, enclosed spaces, or going outside. In all of these cases, the individual is extremely fearful of a “normal” activity. The reason for fear is often hidden below the surface and the cure for the fear comes from treating the subconscious rather than the conscious. These cures are usually obtained through hypnosis because the hypnotist can speak directly to the subconscious. In documented cases, some of these irrational fears have been eliminated by asking a patient to recall a past life memory. Facing the “forgotten” fear of the past can alleviate the fear in the present. For example, under hypnosis, some people who are afraid of water have recalled being drowned at sea in a previous life. After the hypnosis session, the patient is completely cured of the “irrational” fear of water.

Medically, fear reactions occur in a matter of milliseconds. The amygdala, which is located in the nasal cavity, processes scent and connects the smells to memory. During a fear response, the amygdala is activated, which causes the hypothalamus in the brain to produce a hormone called cortidotropin releasing factor (CRF), which then signals the pituitary and adrenal glands to flood the bloodstream with epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol. These stress hormones shut down non-emergency services, such as digestion, and immunity and direct the body to “fight or flight.” The heart pounds, the lungs overact and the muscles receive a burst of glucose. These stress hormones then create a heightened sense of alertness and the brain creates a memory of the event that preceded the fear and correlates the memory to the significance of the event. If the event is traumatic, the brain automatically reacts with fear the next time a similar event is encountered. For instance, a soldier who faces the enemy in a tropical climate may feel fear when the climatic conditions return even if there is no present danger. To overcome fear, therapists can retrain the mind to recognize that certain events should not cause fear. If they can convince the mind to change the memory, the body may be able to overcome the fear response.

Fear stimulates different psychological reactions in different people. Some individuals directly confront their fears and others avoid them through suppression or by refusing to pay attention to them. Responses are often dependent on self-image. In the animal kingdom, the stronger animals fight and the weaker animals run away. If we recognize that fear is an illusion and that we would never encounter a situation that we did not have the strength to handle, we can effectively control our fears. They may rise to the surface from time to time, but we have the power to control them. We just need to face whatever we are afraid of. In other words, if we are strong psychologically, we can fight our fears; if we are weak, our natural tendency is to run away.

Most of our fears are related to things we cannot control. We may need to merely confront the possibility of their existence rather than trying to pretend that the fear does not exist. These types of situations require acceptance rather than action. For example, when we get on a plane, there is the remote possibility that the plane will crash. We need to face this possibility, while realizing that a negative outcome is extremely unlikely. We do not need to exaggerate our fears about an event that will probably never happen.

Some people spend an inordinate amount of effort being afraid of something that will inevitably happen in spite of the way they feel about it. For example, some people are extremely afraid of old age. We all will either die young or reach old age – these are the only two possibilities. We can’t stop these actions because they are out of our control. We just need to be able to accept death or old age without fear. The fear of old age also encompasses many factors. Are we afraid of looking old? Are we afraid of being alone? Or are we afraid of reduced self-worth or physical incapacitation? Some of these fears can be diminished even if they do not disappear entirely. If we don’t want to be alone, we need to allow people into our lives continuously. We can also have facelifts, stay out of the sun, sleep more (which stimulates growth hormones), exercise regularly, create an occupation that does not depend on age or we can simply pay attention to our mental age instead of our physical age. There are many eighty-year old people who feel much younger. How you feel is simply a mental attitude that does not have to be dependent on the physical reality.

The unknown does not have to be frightening only because we don’t have the answers. We need to learn how to become comfortable with uncertainty. Very few things are certain in life. The most loving couples can still get divorced and no matter how secure we are in our jobs, we can be replaced next week. We feel certain that the sun will rise tomorrow but not if a large meteor hits the earth tonight. The only certainty is uncertainty and we do not need to be afraid of circumstances that we cannot control. We just need to believe in ourselves. We need to know that no matter what happens tomorrow, internally we have the strength to survive.

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