Mankind and fear have a very strong relationship. From the beginning of history, people sought out and lived in fear. Fear of death, God(s), creatures, disease, famine, etc. These are, in a way, basic fears. More recently, as we evolved, we started to develop fear of emotions – not being good enough, failure, success, etc. Interestingly enough, fear is completely irrational. As it affects our bodies through clear changes – such as pulse increase, blood pressure increase, perspiration, and many others – it is based on something which does not exist – an outcome which might or might not happen in the future. But fear is primordial, and as such, it can help us or hurt us, depending on our ability to control it. Fears after all, can become just as irrational as finding gluten in a food and all of the sudden becoming intolerant. So, the question is: Is your fear ‘gluten-free’? What is the healthy fear?
Katja Valli in the Threat Simulation Theory argues that dreams have a biological function to simulate threatening events. These threats are meant to prepare us to deal with real danger and, in some situations, to avoid it. So perhaps our nightmares are actually deeply ingrained survival skills passed onto us by our ancestors. If our dreams/nightmares are meant to help us, then fear is not that bad. Nevertheless, fear is used in marketing, politics, and we are all familiar with situations where we are paralyzed by fear, when we cannot move, we cannot think, and we cannot take defensive action.
Modern day society and social media made possible the first videos of mass executions from combat zones. Gruesome videos of IS executing captured Iraqi soldiers show the captives following the “marching” orders to be killed. The captives know they will die and do not put up a fight… It seems irrational, however the same pattern is described by victims in many other situations. From women being raped, to people being savagely beaten, robbed, or killed… They do not resist because the fear takes over them, paralyzing any defense mechanism. But then again we hear countless situations where because of fear people accomplished phenomenal things. So what is the difference between being paralyzed by fear and being driven by it?
People who use fear to accomplish things KNOW they can overcome the danger. People who are paralyzed by it do not see themselves capable of escaping the danger. So if the difference between survival and death (success and failure) is just an internal attitude/view, then why not train ourselves to always face and overcome dangers, to learn to use fear to our advantage?
Students work harder when they fear they will fail an exam, employees are more focused if afraid of being fired, children will listen more if afraid of consequences, athletes will push harder if afraid of losing to adversaries. But only if they believe there is a way to overcome the danger. As discussed in the previous piece, Are You Using A Trifecta Approach In Your Life To Guarantee Success?, a preparation program focused on the physical, mental, and habitual aspects will lead to confidence in overcoming all and any obstacles.
In ultra-running fear of DNF (did not finish) can lead an athlete to a pace never experienced in training, pushing through pain never felt before. Fear of being disqualified for missing a cut-off check point can lead to the body and mind being focused on only one goal — to move faster. The fear of not being good enough can push an athlete to amazing performances which, for the most part, is the driving force behind athletes pursuing records.
So no matter what you do, if you can learn to overcome your fear, you can learn to use it to your advantage. Fear will make you a better husband, father, athlete, businessman, writer, attorney, doctor, soldier. Just learn to take your fear ‘gluten-free’.
Valli, K., Revonsuo, A., Palkas, O., Ismail, K., Ali, K., Punamaki, R. (2005). The threat simulation theory of the evolutionary function of dreaming: evidence from dreams of traumatized children. Consciousnes and Cognition.
Nana, A. (2015). Are You Using A Trifecta Approach In Your Life To Guarantee Success?. Psych Central.