Fear: This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the subject. As my students and participants of our Self-protection workshops would know, I love teaching the subject of fear. Fear is one of the most important and influencing subjects of our lives, although unlike the emotion of love, educating ourselves on real fear is not an easy thing to do. There is not enough literature or education on the subject for ourselves or our kids growing up. What fears are real? What is warranted and what is a fictitious illusion in our imagination?
By David Elsensohn
The maturation of the human mind from primeval animal to reasoning being is an enigmatic but fascinating story. As the first tools began to be used to facilitate everyday prehistoric life and humankind began to hunt in organized groups, spoken language was developed, agriculture was invented, discoveries were made, and humans transformed themselves in a slow but constantly accelerating pace toward the modern age. Yet though we now live in nearly artificial societies surrounded by technology and manmade artifacts to the extent that we hardly realize our thorough separation from nature, we still maintain unconscious, primal instincts that act to preserve us. Arguably the most powerful of these instincts/emotions is fear. For the great majority of our existence, we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, facing dangerous predators and prey alike – even other humans – and kept a well-developed sense of fear to help us remember which elements of the world to avoid.
However, although “our brain is the product of thousands of generations of evolution” we have not, perhaps, evolved as far as we might think. That same advanced brain “has evolved specialized systems for a hunter-gatherer world permeated with threat” that level of hard-coding is among the deepest components of our collective psyche. Since most humans in modern society no longer regularly need a fight-or-flee reaction from predators and hazardous living conditions, they seem to have developed an instinctual need to keep their minds and abilities sharp via frightening films and novels, thrill rides, and negative newscasts. The instinct of fear is necessary as a survival trait, and its current form is a compelling study of how our world is reflected in our entertainment, but by creating, programming, and exploiting fear which nurtures a constant state of alarm, we run the risks of dulling our own protective senses and creating a new variety of unwarranted fear.
The reason for fear as an ingrained trait is simple and obvious – it helps us to survive, by injecting us with memories and chemicals so that we can recognize and avoid danger – although its process is complex. Since fear “can play a direct role in life-and-death struggles, it’s not surprising to find that the brain contains elaborate machinery dedicated to its routines” Upon encountering a threatening situation, a primitive organ in the brain called the amygdala sends out a distress signal. The human body flushes itself with adrenaline, pauses nonessential functions such as digestion, redirects blood into muscles for any needed bursts of energy, and succumbs to a highly sensitive fight-or-flight response. Although many people think of fear as a reaction that hinders our ability to act (freezing), Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence argues that “real fear is not paralyzing – it is energizing”. Although there will be situations in which remaining still and unnoticed is a strategy for survival, the chemical response created by true fear is a galvanizing force for action.
This instinct remains within us, despite the fact that our immersion in modern society shields us from most of the threats ancient humans used to face. Of course, there remain perils and hazards that occur with daunting frequency: natural disasters, violent crime, war, and technological accidents, which, if we are involved in them, trigger our fear response and help us survive. However, the everyday life of a modern human in urban and suburban environments is more or less sheltered, and those threats are often thrust into our subconscious. Many people will worry about potential auto accidents or muggings or world events, but they may not fear them until they happen; until then, such things happen to other people. The fear instinct, then, having no need for everyday exercise, seems to have been redirected. We have bolstered our fear reaction over millennia by telling frightening stories to each other. Every culture in the world has a place for the storyteller, and there has always been a fascination with sitting around a campfire exchanging unlikely tales of horror.
As fear has become fascination, fear has become a form of therapy. Wes Craven, known best as the mind behind the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, suggests: “Artificial horror vents real horror that is resident in the audience […] they don’t pay to be scared, they pay to have their fears exorcised.”
Fear is typically repressed by the psyche until such a time that it can be vented in a safe way. That’s what therapy does. That’s what horror films, ghost stories around the campfire, and nightmares do also. The narrative process tones and tempers the chaos of horror, which otherwise seems formless and endless, and gives it some sense and resolution.
We worry about the current events of the world, new technologies, crime, diseases, and threats from nations different from our own, and we channel the fears and phobias generated by such events into our entertainment. It is a safe method of processing our fear instinct, generating the intensity of terror without the risk of physical consequences, and functions as an aid in understanding or coping with what we find alarming.
Fear may be therapy, redirected through safe mediums such as literature and film, but fear can also be exercised, via thrill rides and haunted houses. Both are highly popular attractions, and both have a timeless quality to them; they do not reflect the outlooks of the age except by becoming more extreme. In a Psychology Today article, Eric Minton adds that “the biggest common denominator is that the two feed on the same basic fear: loss of control. Once a coaster takes off, passengers can do nothing but sit or, on some rides stand, and scream.” Both attractions also share the appeal for fear that frightening films and literature do, in that “no matter how precarious a roller coaster or alarming a haunted house may appear, it must be totally safe”. Fear is channeled here as well, with the conscious realization of danger without consequence. The fear response is activated without the existence of true threat.
However, this modern human tendency to redirect fear has resulted in a tendency to create fear where there should be none, or generate far worse fear from mundane circumstances than would be warranted. We worry about our jobs, world events, relationships, automotive mechanical failure, computer crashes, and other difficulties that are stressful but not directly life-threatening. According to Ernest Becker, “man’s fears are fashioned out of the ways in which he perceives the world.” Animals know what to fear by instinct, “but an animal who has no instinct (man) has no programmed fears”. Since fear is designed to protect us from harm, we absorb information where possible to learn what may be detrimental to our well-being and “allow the fear system to take control in threatening situations and prevent our conscious awareness from reigning. This may have been an optimal design for predator-rich environments in which survival was a minute-by-minute question, but it is not a good adaptation for modern environments in which the stressors can be job performance reviews.”
So, we watch news channels in order to discover new dangers. This, however, can develop the potential for fear to become a destructive emotion rather than a life-preserving instinct. Media agencies are quite cognizant of human psychology, and therefore construct their news stories to be as alarming and attention-getting as possible. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” is well known, and refers to the fact that we as a modern society are attracted to the negative. Our own long-ingrained fear reaction teaches us to examine sources of information for potential threats to our existence, and therefore news stories of violence, crime, disease, and natural disasters have a guaranteed audience, even if there is an infinitesimal likelihood of those tragedies happening to us. News media scare us with brand new diseases, unlikely crime sprees, and economic woes, and such negative information falsely triggers our fear response, creating anxiety, depression, and even phobias. Fear, to us, is no longer a primal response to physical danger, but something of which we may not even be aware, and to which we are even encouraged not to pay heed, despite huge amounts of alarming information broadcast by the news media. Fear “must be taught. While everyone has the capacity to fear, few believe they should pay it much attention. They either do not notice that they are afraid, or they dismiss their fears as dishonorable concerns” . We are worried and afraid without realizing it.
One of the primary rules given by Gavin de Becker is that “what you fear is rarely what you think you fear – it is what you link to fear”. When we conceive of what makes us truly afraid, we can connect it to a peril that will cause us pain or kill us. Too often we attach our fear to situations that are not directly harmful at all – but we create a path of occurrences so that the situations become fearful. For instance, a fear of a poor employment review stems from the possibility that it may lead to losing one’s job, which may lead to loss of possessions and home, being forced to beg for food, and possibly growing sick and dying. This kind of unconscious thought is what leads to phobias, and the level of stress experienced by people in non-life-threatening situations seems to be a symptom of our immersion in modern society. We are programmed to remain in a constant state of fear, which when triggered in a non-threat manner is detrimental.
A well-developed sense of fear is an amazing life-preserving trait which teaches how to take precautions to avoid danger, but precautions are a strategy, not a chemical response; “precautions are constructive, whereas remaining in a state of fear is destructive. It can also lead to panic, and panic itself is usually more dangerous than the outcome we dread. Rock climbers and long-distance ocean swimmers will tell you it isn’t the mountain or the water that kills – it is panic”.
Having a sensible approach to the possibilities of danger may be the most effective means of countering this barrage of stress; “[…] individuals must be taught to understand the rational properties of their fear. While nature has provided individuals with the capacity to fear, it is education that teaches them to act wisely and prudently in accordance with that fear”. It is wise to be aware of what dangers the world contains, and healthy to exercise that fear in safe situations such as films and thrill rides, but it is also wise to recognize what is or is not actually perilous to us. Fear is an important survival emotion, but one must accede to it only when justified.
The Evolution of Fear: How A Human Survival Trait Has Changed
By David Elsensohn
This article does great justice on just one word “FEAR” and shows that Martial Arts and Self Protection training needs to be a holistic education and a comprehensive one. At the Ontario Self Defence centre & Whitby Martial Arts Academy we are committed to teaching real personal safety and martial arts, for real life crossover benefits and survival. We need to understand the subject of fear and all the mental and emotional aspects to being safe in the world today. We need to be aware of our own natural programming, educational requirements on certain mental and emotional subjects as well as our physical abilities.
Martial Arts training that does not deal with fear responses, decision making, awareness cycles and techniques proven under real violence situations is nothing more than a glorified dance. All the benefits of martial arts are typically about developing confidence, focus, fitness and self-defence. Real self-defence training is not about martial arts but a whole separate education. Having a 10th degree black belt alone, does not qualify you to teach the subject of real self-protection and survival.
We would love to see you come down to our Whitby academy and have fun training and learning with us. You and your families safety are always in our thoughts and we take your education seriously. Not only will you learn a proven battlefield martial art, but be given the holistic education of when and how to use it. Having a loaded gun is useless if you don’t know when or how to pull the trigger.
– Shibo Peter Anthony Boland