In 1932 – during the Great Depression – the unemployment rate for the US was at a staggering 24%. This period of agonizing economic hardship was preceded by two tumultuous days of plummeting stock prices. Between Monday, October 28th and Tuesday the 29th, the stock market dropped 23% – essentially wiping out thirty billion dollars of value in just 48 hours. Entire life savings were lost in two days. Three quarters of the country’s banks were closed. Families were ruined and future dreams were shattered. Most people were devastated and caught in the grip of fear. One man was not.
What is it about fear (and its little cousin worry) that paralyzes us?
For starters, there’s a threat. Whether real or imagined, the threat of some impending situation weighs on our psyche. A small mass of tissue in the brain known as the amygdala plays a significant role in our emotional reactions. Researchers believe that the amygdala is directly involved with how long-term memories are stored. And they place particular emphasis on a behavior paradigm known as fear conditioning.
Fear conditioning is how we learn to be fearful in certain situations – we actually predict the occurrence of aversive events. In the 1920s, psychologists experimented with some children causing them to become terrified of certain cute, fuzzy animals. They did this by blasting a horrific noise right behind the children whenever they reached for the animals. The amygdala in these children created a memory associating these types of animals with an awful experience. As a result, anytime the children subsequently saw small, furry animals, they acted terrified, began crying, and ran away.
That is how fear conditioning works. We receive a stimulus in the present (cute animal appears) and recall emotionalized associations from our past. And that informs us of what we should expect in the future (if I reach out to pet it, I will regret it). From a primitive standpoint, fear conditioning certainly has its place. There were clearly benefits to being afraid of those regal looking lions out on the savanna.
Is It Justified?
But how appropriate is our fear and worry given our current circumstances? Most researchers believe the amygdala has not evolved beyond its primitive limbic roots, which suited us well for nomadic foraging. The way to overcome fear is through the higher level logical processing of the neocortex. In his groundbreaking Emotional Intelligence book, Daniel Goleman coined the term emotional hijacking. The amygdala hijacks the rational brain leading us to react in an irrational or even destructive way.
Have you ever not done something worthwhile because you were worried what other people might think? Perhaps allowed fear to hold you back from doing something that you thought was likely in your best interest? Or maybe even reacted badly in a situation and wished you had controlled yourself more appropriately? If yes to any of those, then you’ve likely experienced some form of amygdala hijacking. To which, of course, we can all relate. Whether it is the emotionally charged fight or flight response, or a milder version of anxious worry, we sometimes allow fear to inappropriately direct us.
By not allowing our amygdala to take over, we can use the part of our cortex to process stimuli with much greater reasoning, intellect, and evaluation. We can actually learn how to inhibit the amygdala and create more freedom for ourselves. It starts by feeling our feelings. From here we can question whether our past experiences are truly the best guide for responding.
Who was that one man not caught up in the grip of fear in the midst of the world’s greatest economic turmoil? His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And on the day he was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States at the height of the depression – March 4, 1933 – he said this to the people. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Roosevelt challenged everyone to face the fear. He asked us to recognize that much of fear is unjustified. He challenged us to work with him to address the challenges the country was facing. And within two weeks of his immortal words the stock market had its largest one-day percentage gain – a record that still holds to this day.
For all of us to convert retreat into advance and achieve the success we desire, we must face our fears. Examined honestly and objectively, they often turn out to be much less imposing than thought. But the first (and perhaps hardest) step is looking.
Moving Beyond Fear
From A Course in Miracles perspective, the ego thought system is the seat of fear. Whenever we choose the ego, we are choosing a framework of fear. As such, everything we experience will be at the very least tinged, if not blatantly colored with fear. Echoing Roosevelt’s words of fear paralyzing our efforts to convert retreat into advance:
From this perspective, we do nothing but perpetuate such an inglorious existence. But there is another choice we can make – another thought system that releases us from the prison of fear.
And it is in this choosing that we can experience the phenomenal feeling of freedom.