Fear: Fun or Frightening?
Today is Halloween - and whatever your spiritual or theological position on it, the fact is that it has become a big deal for many people.
The question is: in a time when anxiety is one of the most common emotions for people to struggle with, or even to cause illness, why is it so popular to celebrate fear and causes of fear? Can this tell us something about the way fear and anxiety work?
Fear, and related emotions like anxiety or worry, are fascinating. When we talk about these emotions what we’re really doing is labeling and naming our experience of something that has changed our physiology. The amygdala is a small part of your brain which picks up on situations in the world around you that MIGHT be significant, or MIGHT be important - usually, situations that are new, or uncertain, or could lead to negative outcomes for things that matter to us. The amygdala sets into action a series of processes that help us respond.
What the amygdala does then can be summarised in two things. Firstly, it triggers a chain of physiological changes with two main functions: firstly, grabbing our attention and diverting our focus to whatever it is that is going on, and secondly making sure we are physically ready and able to act or react if we need to. Then secondly, our rational mind gets going, analysing the situation, interpreting what is going on, and making decisions about anything we might need to do.
That last stage is really important. It is how our minds interpret the physiological change triggered by the amygdala, and the situation triggering it, that determines the emotion we experience. The difference between experiencing that physiological flare as negative fear or anxiety or something more positive - excitement, an adrenaline rush or feeling ‘in the zone’ - is almost entirely about how your mind reacts.
People vary, but to some degree most people enjoy a degree of what psychologists call ‘arousal’ - that’s the technical name for that ‘dialling up’ physiologically. We feel more animated, more focused, more effective, and there’s a sense of positive anticipation. However, three important things need to be in place for us to experience this in a positive way.
1 - You feel secure, and that things are in control
Processing responses well, particularly in uncertain situations, needs us to feel basically quite confident about ourselves and the important things or people in our world. We don’t need to be able to control everything (bad news: you can’t!) - and the nature of any situation triggering the amygdala almost definitely will include some uncertainty or risk, but a sense of confidence that you are basically quite capable, equipped and empowered to solve problems and sort stuff out combined with a security that the important people will listen to you and enable and equip you to do what you need to do transforms your experience of that arousal.
2 - You are able to make choices
Our attribution of a situation is heavily influenced by how much we feel like we have been able to freely make the choice to be there. Of course, this is often complex - you might ‘choose’ to take a course that means you have to sit an exam you utterly dread - so our feelings are often rather mixed on this. But if the situation your amygdala is recognising is one you didn’t choose to be in, or if your right to choose was taken from you in something imposed on you, that experience is much more likely to be experienced as negative or even traumatic.
3 - You are not overwhelmed
So far we’ve considered physiological ‘arousal’ operating at levels which are entirely useful and constructive - and perhaps part of the everyday helpful functioning of our minds. But sometimes your brain needs an emergency setting - for the moments when you need to react fast and get yourself out of something without losing too much time overanalysing things. It could be immediate danger - a bear jumping out at you, say. Or it could just be complete overload - too much demand and pressure and stress requiring your mind to keep track of more than it can manage and make important decisions when it does not have capacity to do that well. Your mind has limits and sometimes life leads us uncomfortably close to them. Overwhelm can happen in a moment if lots hits our mind at once, but more often it happens because we have been carrying too much for too long, meaning the baseline on that physiological system has crept up. Once your baseline is close to the emergency zone, it only takes a small challenge to push you into overwhelm. Then your analytical mind is turned right down, so instead you see things very starkly, as black or white, good or bad, and make impulsive instinctive fast decisions. And your brain does everything it can to make that situation feel aversive - to get you to bail and remove yourself from it somehow - so people describe a feeling of panic or a rising urge to ‘do something.’ We often see ourselves at our most basic in these moments, impulsively acting (often overreacting!), ‘seeing red’ or ‘caught in a mist’, painfully aware that our rational minds may not be acting quite as well as usual. And the experience has a much more ‘red alert’ feeling about it.
So what does all this mean? It’s important to recognise that experiencing something as traumatic or anxious in a negative way is not about weakness or some kind of failing in our minds - it is about the nature of the experience we have. But the same situation can be experienced very differently by different people depending on where they are at in that moment, their understanding of themselves and the world, and their past experience.
This helps us understand why some kinds of fear, for some people, are exciting and not unpleasant. We can go to watch a scary movie, or choose to go on a rollercoaster, knowing we’re not in any real peril, and that we’ve made the decision to go there. And we enjoy the adrenaline rush. But people are all different - and someone may find what is fun for you frightening to them. And sometimes we’re taken by surprise ourselves when things we’d usually find fun, exciting or totally manageable suddenly feel far too much, overwhelming and panic-inducing - perhaps in seasons where other things mean we’re much to close to that emergency crisis zone and just don’t have capacity to manage what we usually can.
It also helps us manage fears and anxieties which feel relentless or haunting. Understanding better how our minds are interpreting those situations can help us unpack our own fear, and work out how to manage it better. It almost always ISN’T about eradicating fear or anxiety. Instead, we learn how to reframe situations in our minds, approach them differently so we can manage them better, how to avoid overwhelm and being pushed into panic. Managing anxiety isn’t about avoiding every trigger - you’d never leave the house! It is about growing your ability to manage things, learning about how capable you can be, increasing your confidence and learning to make good choices about what and how you do things. And that includes practical skills to manage our own physiological flares - to calm ourselves down in moments panic bubbles up, and healthy rhythms or rest and relaxation that make sure we do have the capacity to cope when storms blow in.
And, importantly, it can also help us understand how God helps us hold our fears, or manage in those moments of chaos or storm when it feels like we are drowning in worry or panic. If we can experience God’s unconditional love, and grow to trust that God is with us, we can find a security that isn’t thrown by unexpected world events or dramatic catastrophes. We can recognise that we are not in control of many things that we fear - but that God is. And we can find in rituals and practices of prayer and worship and connecting with God, ways to drop our stress level, and find a peace beyond our human understanding so we live life less on the edge of overwhelm and can hold our nerves better.