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What is Fear?

2nd October 2022
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Fear is absolutely one of the basic survival tools in the equipment of all animals, including humans. Why? Because most animals can be eaten, or crushed, or poisoned, or in other ways meet their doom, and the basic survival department of most animals’ make-up is opposed to any of these and takes steps to avoid them. Animals have lived on this Earth which has its perils long enough that any species which was created without fear as part of the build isn’t around anymore.

Survival of the fittest, right?

So, What is Fear?

Fear is a quick-fire response to a situation which threatens to overcome us. Although with some emotional states you can take your time, enjoy the build-up, the consummation and the afterglow, fear must be quick-fire because it arises in situations where if you don’t do something fast, you’ll likely not do anything again. For this reason, fear is quicker than thought. In the time it takes you to think, “Hang on, this looks like a dangerous situation,” you’d better be twenty yards away and sprinting down the road in your heels.

One of your children screams, or a car hurtling towards you; a tree branch cracks and topples above your head; you smell smoke in your house when you haven’t lit the fire; you hear a sudden loud bang. You move! You don’t stop and think, “Hmm. I wonder what’s going on …” Nope, you’re getting out of there double time to save your, or someone else’s, life.

Alarm Bells

This psychological state is called alarm. The list of bodily changes associated with alarm is well known. They predispose your body to rapid physical activity – either towards the threat (the fight response) or away from it (flight). Fight is anger, flight is fear. Each makes good biological sense, depending on the size and severity of the threat. If it’s smaller than you, you can fight it; if it’s bigger than you, too big, get out fast.

All this helps us survive and live to fight, or flee, another day, and is therefore regarded as a good thing. We humans get into difficulties because (as always) we are so clever and highly developed that we make life complicated for ourselves.


Cats vs Humans

Imagine that you’re out late at night. It’s seriously dark. You can hear things, but you can’t see what’s going on. You get nervous. “Ooh, I don’t like this! I’m scared.”

If it was one of my cats, they would say, “What’s your problem? Don’t be daft. Look: there’s the wall, there’s the dustbin. Nothing to worry about. Don’t stress.”

We’re more likely to think “I don’t know what’s out there. There could be ghouls and ghosties, and…”

The cat has two advantages over you, one based on highly developed ability, one on a failing. Highly developed: a cat has excellent night-vision and can see what’s happening and what is not; human beings have rubbish night-vision by comparison.

What we do have, that a cat doesn’t, is a very active imagination, which is extremely useful in a lot of contexts, but not this one, not in the dark. The cat can see in the dark; we can’t, but we populate the darkness with monsters and bogeymen.

It’s the Unknown

Fear lives in the unknown. In the places we cannot see. The places that we don’t want to go. It may be an immediate fear – like what’s out there in the dark. Or completely in our head, such as fear of the future, fear of the unknown. Fear is also best friends with storytelling, and when they team up (against us) they are a formidable team – and no friends of ours as a double-act.

It’s a question of understanding fear, and then figure out if it’s real and how to react to it. Do you need to take action? Or do you need to re-assess and deal with the fear?

Cats do experience fear. My dad told me a story about fear and his childhood cat, “When I was a boy, we had Smokey the cat. The neighbours on one side of our house had Pepper, a cocker spaniel. Smokey had no respect for Pepper at all. He used to stroll past her almost relishing in her perceived nonchalance. But on the other side lived Rebel, a boxer dog, and he was made of muscle. As soon as Rebel came into the garden, Smokey would be straight up the cherry tree, no messing.”

The Bottom Line

The fear is in our perception, and we need to know what it is, and the function it plays in our life. There’s reasonable fear – a good thing, saves lives. Then there are also unrealistic fears – not so good and the one that steals our joy and robs our peace of mind.

I’ll be talking more about those in the coming weeks.

Buckets full of love,

Kate xx


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Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash