Fear is often considered a negative reaction, but at times it can be a life saver. In the face of real danger, fear—which is embedded in the brain’s amygdala—gets us to react instantly. It’s an automatic survival response.
The amygdala also relies on memory to alert us of a danger we faced sometime in the past, so that we won’t fall prey to it again. This embedded fear can go both ways. It may help us avoid a potentially dangerous situation, or conversely, become an irrational fear. Some irrational fears were embedded in our amygdala by a traumatic event we experienced at some point in our life, of which we may have no recollection.
We might also harbor fears we learned from our parents in our childhood. Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. tells Scientific American that, “We learn to become fearful through experience with the fear event, or learning from those people around us like our parents, our siblings, our colleagues […..] Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning.” These fears are debilitating.
Human beings are the only species whose brains have the capacity to think about the future. This might work for or against us when anticipating events. Fear makes us cautious and keeps us from making mistakes, but it can also paralyze us and become a full blown phobia.
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There are some fears we can live with—but we must evaluate those which are crippling. Fear of spiders won’t be as debilitating as, for example, fear of driving when you really need to get to places for work. Stage fright, if you are a performer, is surely a threat to your well-being and livelihood. But, by facing our fears repeatedly, we can overcome them as we deprogram the information stored in the amygdala.
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