extreme close up photo of frightened eyes

What is fear? Why is their fear? When does it happen? Where does it happen? And how to deal with.

All of us know what is fear… really? Let’s tease this apart. Fear is a response that we experience as a feeling. Most know about the three F’s of fear. They are fight, flight and freeze. First there is the automatic somatic response of physical symptoms of increased heart rate, a change of breathing, dilated pupils, and a dump of adrenaline, etc. Otherwise known as the unconsciousness autonomic sympathetic nervous system response to a perceived threat. The sympathetic system readies us to fight, flight or freeze. The consciousness feeling is fear, anxiety, panic and hypervigilance, which is usually a reactive disorganized response. The functional design is physical survival, that is thought to occur in the limbic parts of the brain that feels like a simple on/off or either/or switch.

Let’s go through the 7 layers. The physical level is survival. The internal physical body level, there is a mobilization of energy or readiness. Which is the sympathetic nervous system goes into action with adrenaline, digestion stops, heart rate increases, etc. At the external environmental level, we scan the environment; hyper-focused or aware of the danger and looking for options. These first three levels are the basis of the 3 F’s of fight, flight or freeze. At the emotional level, this is what most folks experience and note as fear, anxiety and panic. At the intellectual/mental level, we try to get our cognitive and logical wits about us to assess what is happening and what we should do about it. At the psychic level, the perception of time slows. And there are questions about “am I going to die?” Existentially what is my meaning and purpose, was my life worth it, seeing your life flash before you, etc. Of course, this all happens in a split second. Where the experience of linear time compresses into a seemingly endless moment and expands into a slow-moving wreck. At the spiritual level this experience, is going to depend up on your beliefs, cultural accouterments and cosmology. Or how you organize your experience of existence on the planet? Simply, in the framework of what is the view of yourself; it is the “why?” I.e., “the view of self, the world, the future and why of your experience.” And the point is that you are the one that determines your perception and attaches meaning, purpose and what you will be/are. You are the sovereign being experiencing your being-ness on this planet.

What do we fear?

Fear of death, dead, finite, done and cold. Fear of no moving internal energy dynamic, which is like being brain dead, but our physical body is still partly working. Fear of no relationships or exchanges with your environment in which you are embedded. For example, being a paralyzed but unable to go to the store, socialize. Or being shunned/ex-communicated. Or it could be because you feel ashamed or embarrassed or not worthy (i.e., self-imposed self-isolation). Thus, you are isolated, which is social interactional or relationship death. Thus, if one is isolated without interactions and relationships, this affects a person’s feelings; their sense of meaning and purpose. And extends into the mental/intellectual level. If there is no interaction and relationship how do I determine myself? What am I? Which then leads to the existential meaning and purpose? Why am I here or why do I exist?

The underlying fear has two primary natures. The two natures are “why do I exist? ” And “fear of the unknown.” These are two potentially horrifying prospects. Most of the time, we don’t want to think about the “why.” The asking of “why do I exist” is an infinitely enormous question of either… I don’t have the “right or authority to exist.” Which results in the insignificance of being. Or you audaciously and courageously claim the God statement “I am!” Nor do we want to look at the abyss of the unknown. Instead, we prefer to stand on the wee bit of ground of what we know, which is the experiential “Now.” While ignoring or being afraid to look at the unknown. Perchance if we wonder about the unknown, whether it’s about the future, past or whatever, it is unknown. Yet we make up or imagine stories of dungeons, dragons and fairytales… new age, off-planet or otherwise.

Why is there fear?

We have been taught that fear is a survival mechanism. That when we come to a dangerous or unknown situation that we should stop, notice what is happening and then decide what is the best option. But what if fear is the introduction or initiation (or cue) that the lesson is available, has begun and we are intuitively ready and wanting to learn something? What?… Oh hell no, I didn’t ask for this! (more on this later)

Fraidy Cat

But let’s just say we are just normal domesticated cats. So, we are a cat lounging in our yard, sunning our furry selves. Suddenly, there is a big, mean barking dog. If the dog has snuck-up and is very close, we immediately respond in a disorganized hissing, swatting manner. But if we hear the dog come in the yard, we’re on our feet, hunched, fur up, tail up, hissing and ready to fight or on our way up the tree. Btw, there is no such thing as a frozen cat… we can be relaxed or cool… but only frozen when dead. Now once up in the tree we can watch the unruly dog and we can settle down, relax, take a nap and mindfully wait for our opportunity. This is because we have observed, learned and now understand the simple ways of the dog (fear).

Where does fear happen?

Fear happens in the mirror. WTH are you talking about Timmy? Some folks seem to be constantly fearful. For others, they are rarely fearful. On the one hand, all of life seems to be a constant and chronic situation of fear, hypervigilance, obsession and perhaps paranoia. For others, there is little to no fear. It’s all an exciting adventure or journey. Arguably, most folks think of fear as a reaction to a perception of a fearful situation. The key determiner is perception. What, how and why are there differences in the perception of fear? Mainly, perceptions are formed from our past. These can be stories or narratives we have been told or that we tell ourselves, traumatic experiences and what we claim as our own self-image. In short, the view of ourselves, the world and of our future is based on the framework or process of our interpretation and subsequent perception of our experience. We create our view and experience of reality. If we create our experience of reality, then our reality is but a mirror of our internal self experience. Thus, by examining the mirror we can come to understand ourselves. And what if we were to polish the mirror?

For example, in hypnotic susceptibility testing/assessment, you ask the subject/individual that is in a state of attentional focus or hypnosis, “do you see the 2 colored boxes?… yes. What color are the 2 boxes? There is a blue box and a white box.” When in fact there are actually 3 boxes. A blue, white and red box, but the subject cannot see, recognize nor is aware of the red box. Until the experimenter notes, “there are now 3 boxes. Do you see them? What color are the boxes?” Hypnosis is perhaps an obtuse approach to consciousness. But it seems to note that what we attend to or focus upon ends up contributing to our perception of reality. 

When does fear happen?

If we are a student, then fear happens when the student is ready. Fear is a masterful teacher. In some Buddhist traditions, the meditation on death is one of the supreme teachers. Meditation on blood, guts and bones, of age and beauty feeding the worms and maggots, of the Bardo states of the birth and destruction of infinite heavens and hells is not for the faint of heart.

Fear as an opportunity to learn

What if fear is reframed as an opportunity to learn? How would a person best learn from fear? Fear can be thought of as merely a sign or signal that there is some danger. How is this perceived? Through the senses, by thought, intuition, from past lessons, etc. There is the sympathetic nervous system of the fight or flight that reacts to perceived danger. That functions to ready the body to fight or flight or freeze. There are all kinds of academic theories and research that are quite intriguing. But if we use fear as a cue to go inside, to introspect and examine ourselves to see if we need to change or improve our perspective. And if we determine there are improvements or adjustments to be made to our perception, we do them. On the other hand, if we determine through this introspection that we are solid, then we have a choice to impress up on the interaction with another… but should we? Or we also choose not to do so. Or we could engage and abide with understanding, compassion and gracefulness. The problem arises when we get this introspective examination out-of-order (if it even happens at all). It’s the biblical metaphor of “the old log in the eye.”


Taking a moment’s notice that feelings that are opposite, can be also very close. For instance, surprise can be terrifying or horrifying or it can be wonderful and elating. One event for one person could be horrifying and the same act, another finds it’s wonderful. Just note that opposite feelings may feel almost the same but have completely different interpretations or outcomes. Is this a matter of perception and interpretation? What is the difference between the emotions or feelings of fear versus excitement or surprise? What about anticipation, anxiety or being excited and happy?

In psychology, there is the adage, “what we resist persists.” Breaking down the three F’s, there is the fight, which is reactive. Flight is avoidance. And freezing is closing your eyes or sticking your head in the sand. But what is the other side of the three F’s? Fighting can be an opportunity to learn how fear works. Flight or running away can get you to a safe place to get some distance in which to observe the dynamics of fear. And freezing can be a cue to open your eyes and to mobilize resources, strategy and tactics. All of this takes gaining knowledge and being prepared with some analysis and a strategic action that you execute. “Failing to plan is planning to fail” (Benjamin Franklin) and likewise with fear. Not knowing fear is to fear.

Reactive Disorganized Response

We often consider fighting a disorganized and reactive engagement or response. Many fights seem to be a reactive and instinctive response to a threat or perceived danger. Sometimes, when a person is a bit incapacitated by stress, drugs, alcohol or diminished mental capacity such as traumatic brain injury or dementia a person does not even know or is aware of their reason for fighting.

Strategic Engagement

We can consider fighting as an engagement of trying to figure out the danger. For example sparing or fighting with an opponent, the fighters in this engagement learn about the opponent’s strengths, weaknesses, calculates threats and looks for opportunities. Also being aware of the context or environment. In fighting, one needs to be aware of what is happening and how to best respond. A good fighter sets their emotions or feelings aside so that they can better focus on strategy and tactics. They analyze what is happening and then develop a strategy and execute their tactics in order to survive or win. The thing about fear is that it is about perception. It’s about the internal self-perception and external perception of the opponent. It’s about “psyching out” the opponent and yet internally remaining cool, calm and calculating as to what needs to happen; both their internal condition, the external events/happenings and the larger context of the environmental conditions, biases and agendas. This is readily seen in any sports at the end-of-season playoffs.

Types of Reactions. We often see flight as avoidance. As running away in hopes to live to fight another day. But running away also depends upon the situation. It gives you an opportunity to figure out what is happening and how to best deal with it. However, it can also trigger a chase or predatory response. If we run away, it can trigger the predatory response both in the predator and our internal state as a victim. What happens is an increase of our fear, anxiety and feeling like a cornered victim. Being able to live to fight another day, on one hand, is a relief and yet can establish perceptions and feelings of impending doom. Doom are feelings of chronic, pending and anticipatory anxiety. In psychology, extreme cases can cause obsessive thoughts of what might happen if ritualistic behaviors of handwashing, checking door locks or that certain rituals are not performed or items not in the correct place. This is an extreme presentation of anticipatory anxiety; or anxiety about anxiety. A seemingly hellish existence of being stuck in the ooze of fear; sinking into a semi-frozen slushie… to cold to move.

The freeze response is denial. If I don’t acknowledge or open my eyes, it doesn’t exist. But unless a person pulls their head out and looks around at the fear, it dooms them to be a victim. But because one closes their eyes, it acknowledges that the fear exists. But the person is so fearful and does not want to open their eyes. What happens? The frightening thing grows bigger and bigger until we cannot ignore it. And at some point, it bites you in the ass. Often folks are surprised, “I didn’t see that coming!” Duh, your head was in the sand and ass in the air. What did you think was going to happen?

All three survival responses can be appropriate for the short term, but it depends on the situation. An example, out hiking and you come up on a rattlesnake; freeze and then slowly move away. Or a mountain lion you want to fight; yell, scream, bang on pots and pans. Make yourself appear and sound bigger, don’t act like a victim. In fact, if you run away, it can trigger the predator chase response. And running away works only if you can run faster and get to a place where they can’t go; maybe up a tree or running into the water. The point is, develop or have some situational awareness.

Situational Awareness.

Situational awareness has two parts. The basics are simply knowing the “what, when, where, how and why.” With fear, it’s simply asking, investigating and developing a base of knowledge about of these aspects. The second part is having a strategy of how to deal with fear. And fear is situational. Fear is not pervasive but is tied or connected with specific situations. It is useful to have strategies and a toolbox of tactics that can be used in reoccurring situations. This is pretty simple. The hard part, is to keep, remember and find your wits/tools when surprised. Thus, if we are situationally aware, we are not usually surprised and are prepared to readily access our tools/tactics in our toolbox.

Fear is a matter of self-perception, a matter of perception of the situation/environment/fear trigger or understanding of the opponent/fear… what is happening.


What are the best skills to deal with fear? Basics is to first be able to over-ride the sympathetic nervous response. The simple and easy to learn skill is breathing well. The hard part is to have the where-with-all to remember to breathe well. Learn how to breathe, specifically to do deep diaphragmatic breathing; nice and slow. Three or four slow deep breaths can be the difference between life and death when dealing with a crisis or a fearful situation. If anxiety and panic take off, it can be a tough horse to reign in. A few deep breaths will help override the sympathetic nervous system. It will give you a few moments to stop, look around, access the situation (situational awareness). Analyze, adapt/innovate and execute. Verses a reactive, disorganized response of doing something. The problem is that you don’t know what you are doing and you don’t know why you are doing it. Having your eyes open, remaining calm, assessing the situation leads to strategic responses and results in more successful outcomes.

The other skill to gather courage to face and look into the fear with mindfulness. (Refer to this post https://lovechangegrow.com/wrathful-and-peaceful-deities/ )

There will always be fear. But the secret is to acknowledge this and yet be able to recognize how to turn fear into an ally or friend. If a person understands fear, it’s function, why it exists, how it works, when it happens, where and to whom; then a fear is a masterful teacher, a protector and is no longer an adversary; but a friend. Fear becomes a friendly wake-up call. A call to a challenge. A challenge to be aware, learn, resolve, elevate, transform and move on to the next challenge and lesson.

If we re-orient our perception, interpretation and framework that understands fear as a challenge. Then instead of anxiety there is excitement. Instead of demons there are allies. And we transform fear into opportunities.

Here is the point of this post

Currently, we are facing all kinds of challenges: The economy, finance, climate, politics, health, education, famine, earthquakes, floods, comet impact, aliens with UFO’s, etc., the list is bizarre and endless. Sticking our heads in the sand does not make it go away. By fleeing… to where? Mars, wonder who can afford to buy a ticket to ride that horse and buggy? And fighting… for whom, for what, where, why, when and how?

At a base level, fear is a thing of distraction, a horror show. At a slightly elevated level, it is an opportunity to learn, to befriend an ally that helps us to clarify and change our perceptions. Then we arrive at the opportunity to choose; to transform our reality with integrity, compassion and gracefulness because we have been audaciously courageous instead of cowering under the influence of fear.

Peace, love and light!


Relevant posts:

Wrathful and peaceful deities https://lovechangegrow.com/wrathful-and-peaceful-deities/.  

Breath and Mindfulness https://lovechangegrow.com/breath-and-mindfulness/

Published by Love Change Grow LLC

Counselor and crisis consultant of 25 years. Providing education about how to navigate change.

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