The role of fear
When we are faced with aggressive or violent behaviour, we may experience fear, or at least the symptoms of fear. These physical and emotional reactions can potentially stop us from dealing with a conflict situation in a calm and sensible manner or perhaps even stop us from reacting at all. For this reason, it is essential that we learn a bit about the effects of fear and, if possible, discover how to control our fear.
In reality, you are actually only born with two fears:
- A fear of falling
- A fear of loud noises.
All other fears are learned behaviours and what has been learned can also be unlearned. Most fear we experience is created in our minds as we imagine how badly something can turn out. If you think about it, things seldom turn out as badly as you imagine they might, so most fear is ill-founded. On this basis, think of fear as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real.
What does fear do to us?
When you come into contact with a fear stimulus, you will, to a greater or lesser degree, experience the fight-or-flight reaction, which determines whether you will defend yourself or run away. Fight or flight is one of the most basic human instincts and, at a simplistic level, it can be thought of as coming from the reptilian part of your brain, the amygdala, which controls the raw instinct to act. This raw instinct is inhibited by the reasoning part of your brain, the frontal lobe.
The effects of fear are down to the neuronal and hormonal changes triggered by the autonomic nervous system, the unconscious system that controls functions such as our heartbeat. It has two branches:
- Parasympathetic Nervous System: the body functions on this nervous system in a non-threatening environment
- Sympathetic Nervous System: when the body reacts to a fear stimulus our amygdala switches on our sympathetic nervous system, which gets us physically ready for fight or flight.
Among the symptoms of the sympathetic nervous system are
- Accelerated heart rate
- Accelerated breathing
- Foveal vision (more commonly known as tunnel vision)
- Increased adrenaline
- A change in skin tone
- A change in skin colour
- Pupil dilation
- Fidgeting or pacing, as the person might be feeling tense and un-relaxed
- Single syllable speech.
In a conflict situation, fear can either help or hinder us, depending on how we choose to utilise the adrenaline that our body provides us with. On the one hand, adrenaline can give us speed, strength, flexibility, resistance to pain, stamina and faster reflexes; on the other hand, if we can’t handle it, it can make us freeze which, in a threatening situation, can prove lethal. It can also make us inappropriately or excessively aggressive.
In an aggressive or attack situation, it probably won’t just be the victim or target who has adrenaline coursing through their system; the antagonist will almost certainly have it too. Unless they are well practised and very good at hiding it, we can use this to spot when someone is getting worked up and pre-emptively either call for help, remove ourselves from the situation or defuse the situation verbally, if that is still a plausible option.
If the circumstances are such as to arouse fear, then you will always feel fear – you can’t stop it, because it is a natural reaction. However you can learn to manage and control your fear and even get so used to it that you hardly notice it.
It is important for us to manage our fear at least to some degree, as it can be very debilitating in stressful situations, which can be extremely dangerous. Two of the best and most effective ways of dealing with fear and adrenaline are exposure therapy and peripheral vision exercises.
Exposure therapy and fear pyramids
One of the most effective ways of dealing with fear and teaching yourself to utilise adrenaline is through exposure therapy. This method is highly effective because, as well as conquering your fears, you also gradually become accustomed to the effects and feelings of adrenaline. The result is that in a very frightening or stressful situation, you are less likely to freeze or over-react and more likely to be able to react and act in a calm and sensible manner.
When we become comfortable with adrenaline, we can utilise the advantages that it can give us. Adrenaline can give us more speed, strength, flexibility, resistance to pain, stamina and faster reflexes than we’ve ever had before.
Make a fear pyramid, as shown in the diagrams below, and then tackle your fears one by one.
Once you’ve successfully exposed yourself to a stage in your fear pyramid, or controlled your anxiety in a stressful situation, you can reinforce the positive belief that you can overcome your fear by perhaps thinking to yourself, ‘That was so easy!’ Then smile (a big smile, not a half-hearted one!) and take a moment to enjoy yourself and just feel good about whatever you are doing and life in general!
First of all, build yourself a pyramid of all your fears, with your biggest fear at the top and your most trivial fear at the bottom. For example...
Next, build yourself a pyramid specific to a fear, starting with your most trivial fear. Once you’ve conquered that, move up your fear pyramid, so you gradually expose yourself to all your fears, starting at the bottom and working upwards. The example below is a fear pyramid designed for heights. The idea is to gently get used to the thing that incites fear in you and to break the belief that it is scary.
There is an interesting link between the way we focus our eyes and our state. If we focus intently on something, using our foveal vision, which is the sharp central tunnel vision that covers only two degrees of our visual field, this takes up around 50 per cent of the processing in our visual cortex. This is the vision we developed for hunting, and we also use it when responding to threat. It triggers strong activity in the sympathetic part of our nervous system, preparing us for action under stress-producing adrenaline, speeding up the breathing, changing the priorities of blood circulation and so on.
If, however, we use our peripheral vision rather than the foveal tunnel vision, this turns off the sympathetic nervous system, and turns on the para-sympathetic nervous system. This reverses the effects of stress on our physiology and leaves us calmer and more relaxed.
The good news is that if you practise this shift from foveal to peripheral vision you will be able to make the switch in a few seconds, giving you a tool to manage fear and also a tool to change state in order to break The behaviour spiral.
Step 1: Pick a point on the wall across the room or across the street, choosing one that is higher than your normal line of vision, and focus on it without tilting your head up.
Step 2: Still focusing on the chosen point, gradually build up your vision around it until you have 180° peripheral vision. It helps if you have some movement at the periphery of your visual field. This might be a tree moving in the breeze or perhaps you could get a friend to stand off to your side and wave their arms gently.
Step 3: Notice how you feel. Notice what changed. Notice the effect this has on your other senses, such as hearing and smell.
Step 4: Once you have 180° peripheral vision, open it up just a touch more by imagining your awareness stretching around behind you. It can help to imagine a ball bouncing slowly up and down in the air behind your head.
Step 5: Stop; look elsewhere to interrupt the process, and then repeat it a few times. You will notice that it gets easier very quickly.
When you drop into peripheral vision, you will notice that your body relaxes, your breathing slows, anxiety and fears seem to leak away and any feeling of stress disappears. You will also notice that you can remain with your attention peripheral even as you move your eyes about. With practice, you no longer need the original point of focus used in the exercise.