The Irrationality of Most Fear

It’s important to look at neuroscience in the context of evolution. Fear and general emotion are controlled through the limbic system. The limbic system initially evolved in the ancestors of both mammals and reptiles. Essentially, this means that it’s a very old part of our brains.

The amygdala (part of the limbic system) is responsible for the flight or fight response. This response helps animals react quickly in the face of danger insuring that they around for another day.

It’s an essential part of our emotional response. If we didn’t have fear, we would probably die young as we would constantly put ourselves into dangerous situations.

There are a few primary situations where you experience fear:

  1. You are in a situation that you feel is similar to the past where you saw a negative outcome.
  2. You are in a new situation, and are unsure of the outcome (although this may also result in anxiety for some people).

Why does this matter?

In pre-industrialized civilization this often meant that you came across a bear in the wild and you had to decide whether to fight or run (I’d run personally). However, in today’s world, we often don’t run across a lot of bears, or lions, or snakes, or frankly anything that poses a serious existential threat. We live in a rather benign environment where most of us will survive well into our 80’s. We’ll most likely die of some age related disease.

Yet, with all this being said, our amygdala is still as active as it was 5,000 years ago. I think few people would argue that we live a pretty posh life compared to our hunter gatherer ancestors.

Realizing the Irrationality of Fear

I believe that most fear that we experience is irrational. It is real fear, but it is an irrational response. Until we recognize this, we are being overly controlled by this irrational nature that most likely results in compromising our own happiness.

In the first situation where fear arises (similar situations with previous bad outcomes), there are a lot of possible rational explanations to why you originally had an irrational reaction. You might have been inexperienced previously, while now you are much more competent. Or, maybe you just suffered from some perception blindness (you were unaware that you were wearing you binoculars).

For the second scenario (new situations) — it’s important to differentiate fear from risk. I think most people are inherently bad at distinguishing the two and often conflate fear with risk. Many times though, the thing that you are most fearful of is the least risky solution — it’s just different.

Fear Still Has Value

Fear and anxiety often occurs in situations where you lack the skill to navigate effectively. It’s important to step back, take a breath, and understand exactly what is happening and why you are experiencing fear.

Fear often leads to opportunities for personal growth. When you learn to evaluate risk separately from the fear you experience, you can begin to unmask your own irrationality and areas where you are limiting yourself.

If you have a life full of what if’s, then maybe it’s worth taking sometime to understand why — were you actually at risk, or were you just afraid of yourself?