Fear Psychology

by Jordan Ciambrone | August 24, 2020, 03:59 AM

Managing emotions is a key mental skill needed to navigate life’s inevitable peaks and valleys. While research and theory surrounding human emotion is ambiguous, we do know that emotions are constructed from experiences, personal disposition and innate reactions. 

A local hiker shares her recent opportunity to work with fear: “We were planning to hike Halo Ridge, a 15 mile ascent to 14,000 ft. in the Holy Cross wilderness. Preparing for such a climb requires a bit of research: weather conditions, four-wheel-drive terrain, and of course, what friends say about the mountain. Three times I was warned to beware of the spiders. I have a phobia or irrational fear of spiders. By the time I got to the trail head, Mount of the Holy Cross would be infested spiders the size of my hands. Reality? Oh. I saw two tiny spiders, and had an amazing time!” 

A  local mom shares her experience with what has become the norm for many parents today: “Phone dings. Email from the school district. I brace myself. Pep talk. I can open this. I can handle whatever change is coming our way. I’ll figure it out. I can do this. We can do this. Roll with the punches. My heart races. My face turns hot. My mouth is dry. I open it. Oh. Ok. Just an update from the school that CDOT is doing more construction and detouring the drive to school.

2020 has provided us all many opportunities to work with fear in the face of real and existential threats to safety: physical, financial, and beyond.

Fear and How to use it for Growth

Fear is an essential, universal human emotion. It is an innate protective mechanism that arises when safety, or the sense of safety is threatened. Fear can be real or perceived. How you interpret (both real and perceived) threats has a profound influence on physical, psychological and emotional well-being.

Paul Ekman, pioneer in the study of emotion, suggests three factors shape fearful experiences: intensity, timing and coping. His atlas of emotions, presents fear, and its approximations, along a continuum of intensity from mild trepidation → nervousness → anxiety → dread → desperation → panic → horror → terror. Effectively managing fear starts with accurate emotional labeling.

When considering fear as a protective mechanism, timing makes a world of difference. What begins as a startle reflex, or an intuitive whisper, could result in a life saving choice to flee from harm. Gavin DeBecker writes in The Gift of Fear, “the human brain is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk.Then intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height where it can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous…”

Practical tools for Coping

Coping with fear takes practice tuning into physical cues. Become curious about personal patterns, and identify what events trigger fearful responses. Begin practicing with a trigger that poses no immediate physical danger. The daily news can actually become an opportunity to start experimenting with your new, mindful relationship to fear. 

While interpreting initial physical responses (increased heart and breathing rate, blood sugar, muscle tension, sweat, etc), there is an opportunity to pause. In this precious pause, you have a choice to reassess the situation, reconsider the stakes, and re-frame consequences that may have been taken to illogical extremes (like gigantic spider infestations). 

Take time to name the emotion you are feeling, understand where it lies along the intensity continuum. A rich emotional vocabulary may lessen the intensity, and foster emotional intelligence.* 

As you re-frame, ask yourself some of these questions: 

  • How does my body typically let me know when I feel threatened? 
  • What meaning am I associating with these physical cues?
  • Are my thoughts working for, or against my capacity to think and see clearly? 
  • Am I adding something to the event that is not really there? Am I missing relevant cues? 
  • What, if any, actions can be taken to reduce or eliminate the threat? 
  • What is within my control? What is not?  

This type of constructive self talk is NOT akin to “stinkin thinkin,” worry, anxiety and doubt. See if you can tell the difference between thoughts that are flavored with curiosity versus thoughts that are wrought with worry, doubt or anxiety. Create space to learn which responses are skillful, situation appropriate,and provide an accurate interpretation of the environment. Over time, constructive self-talk will enable you to better trust your intuition.  

Remember, you can learn to be afraid of anything. Practice pausing often, re-framing with the intent to see threats clearly. When choosing to face your fears, start with something small and tangible. With practice, the fruits of your labor will allow you to meet looming existential threats with a clear mind and body ready for action. 

Did you know that the Lovingkindness Meditation was created as an antidote to fear? Stay tuned for a guided meditation on our resources page, reach out for individual consultation with Jordan or Bethany, or simply lean on the words of Yoda, “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”

Until next time, 
Jordan and Bethany


If you need help managing harmful thoughts please seek help immediately. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)  is a preferred resource https://www.nami.org/Home



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