Three Levels of Fear and What They Mean for Your Happiness

frightened womanDo you live in fear and anxiety? Do you think they protect you? They may—to a degree.

The startle reflex is protective; if we happen to step in front of a moving car, we immediately jump back, and that is a good thing. This reflex originates in the brain stem.

The fight, flight, or freeze response originates in the amygdala in the mid-brain. It is triggered when we sense danger. When we do not feel safe, we react instinctively without being aware of what we just perceived. The amygdala can be compared to a scanner on a submarine that is always on alert for danger. We are mostly unaware that this is happening. If we perceive a threat to our survival or emotional well-being, we generally respond by fighting back, fleeing, or freezing.

The third level of fear is irrational beliefs and unreasonable expectations. These beliefs are located in our higher brain, the cortex, which is the seat of judgment and executive functioning. Many of our beliefs were formed so early in childhood that they seem like facts that are a part of who we are. Others were adopted later through cultural influences. Challenging or changing these beliefs may bring up more fears and resistance. We are familiar with the way we think and experience and do not know what our world would be like if we changed our beliefs. We can ask ourselves, “Would I rather be right about my way of thinking and collect evidence to prove and validate my beliefs? Or am I willing to challenge my beliefs in a way that would allow me to be happier?”

Anxiety and stress can take a toll on our mental and physical health. At the same time, they can serve us. If we view stress as bad and try to get rid of it, it has a more negative effect. But if we understand it as serving us, the detrimental effects are negated. The degree of fear, stress, or anxiety, and the effect on us, has to do with our beliefs about it. If you’re about to step on stage in front of a few thousand people, do you experience exhilaration, terror, or panic? How you define the event and what you say to yourself about it will determine your stress or relaxation level. Being a little scared but having a lot more excitement may be the best combination for peak performance.

Worry is frequently based on irrational or unreasonable expectations about the future. You may worry about not having enough money. Or you may worry about not being liked, saying or doing the wrong thing, or doubting that you are worthy and valuable. Specific fears or phobias—for example, snakes, bugs, and storms—may also worry you. All of these can haunt you until you find a way to release them. Notice how much you say to yourself, “What if (fill in the blank)?”

Ask yourself, “Do my beliefs protect me or just cause me to feel miserable? Are they beliefs I have chosen or ones I have taken on because that is what others have told me?” Since you decide what to believe, you also decide what not to believe. It is your choice.

Make a list of the things you think you are afraid of or worry about and challenge them. Ask if these are beliefs you chose or ones you just grew up believing because your parents, teachers, church, peers, or media told you it’s what you should think.

Be honest with yourself. It is the only way you are going to get to having more rational, reasonable expectations that bring you more peace and happiness.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marian Stansbury, PhD, therapist in Milford, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jane

    Jane

    April 25th, 2014 at 10:18 AM

    Thank goodness I rarely move beyond the startle reflex cuz that’s bad enough on its own!

  • Dalthon

    Dalthon

    April 25th, 2014 at 2:25 PM

    So let’s say the your fears don’t feel irrational to you, they feel hard core and real. What do you do then? I mean, I know there have been times when I have been really worried about things and people will say oh, that’s no big deal, don’t worry and I know deep down inside that they are probably right but still there is that nagging belief that they could be wrong and then what am I supposed to do with that? There is no way you can just talk yourself out of being afraid, because for most of us that is so deep that you can’t let go of it. Where do you go from there?

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    April 26th, 2014 at 8:33 AM

    Thank you for your comments. I encourage you to be aware of the difference between thoughts, beliefs, emotions and sensations. Because something feels true doesn’t make it true. Your thoughts and beliefs lead to the feelings and sensations you experience. It usually goes back to what are you telling yourself. And we have a choice about that. And it’s not about who is wrong or right. It’s more about how I choose to view a situation. The way you ‘talk yourself out of being afraid’ is look at what you are telling yourself and correct your negative thinking so as to have a different experience.

  • kyleigh

    kyleigh

    April 26th, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    I hate the thought of being paralyzed by my fears and letting that consume me. I don’t know how you can live that way, always being afraid and always living with the irrationality that someone or something is out to get you. That has to be very hard, to not be able to live life to the fullest potential without being afraid of something real or not all the time. I guess if you have always lived like that then this is what would gfeel normal for you, but if it is new, then I would have to seek out some help from someone who could hopefully allow me to manage that fear and work through it in a safe way.

  • Brandt

    Brandt

    April 27th, 2014 at 4:45 AM

    It is only natural that wehn you are genuinely afraid then this will consume you. But there is hope and there is help and it does not have to be like this.

    I would start by seeking out the help of a good counselor, someone that you can talk to about these fears and who can help you to make some rational sense of them and to start working toward overcoming those fears.

    Why should you ever feel like you must live this way when there is really so much help that is available for you?

  • garrison

    garrison

    April 28th, 2014 at 3:24 AM

    I don’t really think about the whole fight or flight as a part of fear, but more about being brave. I have always associated this with something bad happening and to save myself or someone that I love I have to fight it out or get away from it at all costs. I guess looking at it as part of this hierarchy of fears I can see how it fits in but for me I think that it could always have that association with the fact that I am going to have to fight to the finish to save my life or someone that I love.

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    April 28th, 2014 at 5:27 PM

    Being brave is a good thing but the trigger to need to be brave is ‘there is danger’.

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    April 29th, 2014 at 2:33 AM

    Being brave when danger is is a good thing. When danger is perceived you will experience a sensation in your body which may happen so quickly you may not notice. This may be thought of as a fear that prepares us for action (fight,flight or freeze). Each of us may have a primary mode of responding.

  • kara

    kara

    April 29th, 2014 at 3:32 AM

    For many years I think that I was the person who irrationally believed in things and was scared of things because other people in positions of power over me told me and coached me that these were things that I should be scared of. I lost too many years to those irrational fears and probably misunderstandings about who others were and why I shouldn’t be with them. I am happy to say that I have broken free from that mold and am working on being much more inclusive but please know that these types of changes take time to alter. You have been taught one thing for so long and have believed them for so long that even though you know that the right thing to do is to move forward it can still be tempting to remain mired in your past.

  • Townshend

    Townshend

    April 30th, 2014 at 7:27 AM

    It’s not always a bad thing to be a little afraid of certain things. This llittle bit of fear, and I am not talking about the kind that can render you helpless but just the kind that makes you think a little before making a rash decision, that kind of fear could actually in the end protect you from doing something really stupid. There can be some benefits that we aren’t necessarily talking about.

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