Danger! Threat! Fear!

Did you know that fear keeps us alive? It is essential to our survival. In the face of danger, we become afraid and parts of the brain activate the fight flight reaction.

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Both western science and ancient Chinese Five Element theory recognize fear as that emotion that helps keep us alive. In Five Element theory fear is associated with kidney energy or qi. Kidney qi is of a special type. It supports the body in reproducing, growing, and developing–the bodily life cycle. So, it is not surprising that fear works with kidney qi to keep us alive.

From a western scientific perspective, fear arises from a perceived threat and we experience the physiological response called fight flight or the stress response. Fear is an important element of fight flight because when we feel fear that’s a signal to us that we need to pay attention, not just react but really pay attention.  Here’s why. So important to our survival is fight flight that when a threat stimulus reaches the thalamus, its first processing point in the brain, the same stimulus takes two different processing paths. The short route is rough and fast. The long route brings in higher processing and is much more precise but is also slower.

The short and long processing works like this. Suppose we’re hiking through the woods and just up ahead, we see something. It looks like a long narrow shape coiled up on the path. The short route says, “Must be a snake!” “Snake,” says the amygdala, “I’ll tell the hypothalamus to turn on the stress response!” At the same time, the long route sends the information to the cortex for higher processing, “Wait a minute. It kind of looks like a snake but is it really?  No, it isn’t. It’s twisted woody vine.” But, let’s check in with explicit memory.” The explicit memory is consulted through the hippocampus. “This is twisted woody vine. I’ve seen this before.” Word is sent to the amygdala. “No snake! Just twisty woody vine.”  The message is received and more messages tell the nervous system to reset.

The fight flight response causes physiological changes in our body via the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. These include elevations in perspiration and heart and respiratory rates. It makes sense. If we’re going fight or flee, we need muscle power and that means we’d better have oxygen and blood flow going to the muscles so we can punch harder or run faster. “Snake! Run!”

At the same time that the sympathetic nervous system is ramping up glucose production, it is also making other less noticeable but just as important physiological changes in the body. The pupils dilate, blood is drawn away from the skin to the muscles alas the saying, “white as a sheet,” when someone is really afraid. Parasympathetic modulated responses such as digestion and large intestine and bladder functions cease. The body is so focused on fight or flight that the bowel and bladder may even empty spontaneously.

When  a threat presents itself, fear arises and the stress response system turns on. When the danger passes, our fear evaporates and the nervous system shakes off the stress response by re-balancing its sympathetic and para-sympathetic branches. Animals in the wild literally shake all over once danger has passed.

But what happens when our nervous system isn’t able to shake it off? This happens when one perceived threat is followed by another one before the nervous system has had time to reset. This is the dilemma of our modern life. The dangers and threats we face are not tigers looking for their next meal and usually, not even snakes in our path. We face a plethora of perceived dangers often driven by our own thoughts. We are afraid of not having enough of what it takes to meet the challenge that lies ahead. Perhaps we are afraid we can’t complete or achieve that which we aspire to or that we are inadequately prepared for what we might be asked to do. “Will I get laid off?” “Is this relationship going to fall apart?” ” What’s going to happen at work today? Will my project get approved?” “Do I have enough money to pay the mortgage this month?”  These are all survival fears! And, one after another they arise without ever giving our bodies time to reset. The result? We live in a state of fear and physiological stress. It takes its toll on our health and well-being. Our kidney qi gets zapped.

If we don’t do something non-stop fight flight or stress response can turn from something that saves us into something that kills us. What can we do?

We can pause. Remember that when  a threat appears, we feel fear and the brain processes it both on a short,  fast track and on a long, slow tract. The fast track processing gives a quick and rough appraisal to the amygdala, “Ah, it looks like a threat. Better to act now than be sorry.”  But, if we pause, we allow the long tract enough time to process. The higher processing of the cortex and explicit memory via the hippocampus can weigh in. Is this really a threat? No, it isn’t. The body can relax.

Our fear is a signal. It is a signal to pause and bring our awareness inside to the whole thing about the perceived threat.  We can make contact with it by saying, I’m sensing something in me that’s really afraid … .” We can acknowledge it by saying, “Hello, I see you’re there.” We can keep it company with interested curiosity and when it is ready to tell us something, we can listen mindfully, with our full attention, non-judgementally and with compassion.  We can ask, “What is this wanting to happen?” or “What is this not wanting to happen?” This practice of pausing with awareness can save our lives. It can keep the fight flight, stress response at an appropriate level. Turned on when necessary; turned off when not. It can keep our body mind in balance, healthy and well.

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