One of the fundamental traits of all life is fear. It is a natural response to the survival instinct of every living thing, from a cell to a human. All of us experience it every day. As Arthur Koestler says in his seminal book Janus: A Summing Up, fear is a primordial emotion. Biologically, fear is a natural response to physical and psychological danger and is one of the building blocks of human evolution. If the fittest survive on the planet, fear has a large role to play in it.
Today, there is enough scientific evidence that our nervous system and body reflexes are geared to tackle any perceived or actual threat to our lives, families, homes and, for humans, even countries. It is also evident that intuition or genetic memory too plays a part (the migration of birds is an example). Human beings living in distinctly hostile environments develop an uncanny skill to survive even in the harshest habitats. Our body, especially the brain, has its own system of response to fear. Over time, humans have further honed their behavioural patterns to combat fear, natural or otherwise. Almost a third of the world’s population suffers from some form of anxiety, but as a species, humans have learnt to cope with fear rather well.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less,” said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Marie Curie a hundred years ago. Yet, the way fear has engulfed humans, it is a pandemic that cannot be treated with antidepressants and benzodiazepines. Millions around the world are suffering from anxiety, which is just another name for fear.
There is no absolute fear; fear is always of something. The thing you fear is never an actuality (not in the active present). It’s something that might happen in future (fact of insecurity, uncertainty, impermanence, loss of power, political upheaval, financial crisis, medical emergency, professional disaster, etcetera) because you have a negative thought about it; when the thing you fear is actual, fear ceases.
Most fears are imagined. What you imagine may happen, or it may not. You are usually never directly impacted by situations wherein you are really threatened. Most of the time, it is what you apprehend. For example, we don’t fear death, we fear dying—in pain, in loneliness, in suffering, or the idea that we may lose someone close. Interestingly, the foundation of all religions is an afterlife—the promise of heaven or reincarnation. This is to alleviate our fear of what may happen to us.
We actually know a lot about what goes on in the brain when stimuli present during danger become memory-triggers for the danger. The human brain is far superior to a supercomputer. It not only has an infinite memory which is constantly refreshed, but it also has an ability to combine our natural responses with our intuitive and emotional responses to any person, thing or situation. For example, Pavlov’s experiment is a case of response by association. Psychologist Ralph Adolphs puts it succinctly: ‘[F]ear is an intervening variable between sets of context-dependent stimuli and suites of behavioral response. Its usefulness is explanatory, and one can be agnostic about any correspondence with other psychological, let alone neurobiological, states. Such a variable could take on a consistent set of values within an individual, and differ systematically between individuals, making it a candidate for a personality trait.’
Most people confuse anxiety with fear. Both are scientifically defined as negative emotions but while the former is brought about by a stimulus threatening, the latter is merely an anticipated threat. When we say we fear failing in an examination or interview, technically we mean we are anxious. But the confusion results from the fact that the line between the two is blurred. So, in a war zone, people may no longer get anxious about gunfire but that doesn’t mean they no longer fear a gun battle. Similarly, an astronaut may venture into deep space after years of training, and with much courage, but she may still suffer bouts of fear. This holds true for all of us.
Most common fears are related to personal loss, family, food, shelter, illness, religion, nation and money. The old Middle Eastern tradition emphasises that all conflicts arise out of ‘zar (money), zan (women, or sex) and zameen (land, or property)’. The assumed loss of any of this creates fear. Similarly, faith or religion usually promises a life after death and then creates a doctrine which provides a way out of this fear. Since time immemorial, a battle of survival and consequently of thriving has been the bedrock of human efforts. According to Aristotle, ‘…to turn next to Fear, what follows will show the things and persons of which, and the states of mind in which, we feel afraid. Fear may be defined as a pain or disturbance due to a mental picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future.’ In the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna starts listing the 26 Divine Treasures of a virtuous being, he mentions the absence of fear as the first virtue. The reason for this is that a person who is always scared, timid and cowardly will never have the courage to practise all the other virtues.
All fears necessarily involve a subject and an object: I and the object of my fear. Vedanta says that fear will persist as long as we are conscious of an object different from us. And these objects include our own body and mind, of which the subject, the witness, is the Atman. It is from a second entity that fear comes, according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Again, the Buddha says that at the base, all beings experience a state of anxiety, fed by our habit of resisting the impermanence of our existence. The Bible mentions two specific types of fear: the first is beneficial and is to be encouraged, the second, a detriment and to be overcome. Natyashastra interestingly mentions bhaya (fear) and vibhatsa (loathsome) as two of our seven primary emotions.
Today we know that our brain, heart and other organs like the eyes, ears, tongue (as well as internal organs like adrenal and pituitary glands) have their own response to fear. So there is a biological definition to fear as well .The fear stimuli tell our amygdala to release adrenaline (our ‘fight or flight’ hormone) and we now know that a rise in cortisol levels leads to stress, anxiety and depression. Similarly, hormones like serotonin increase our level of joy. So in a way it is nature’s way of providing the body an alarm system. There are many genetic (and intuitive) responses to certain situations hardwired into our brains. Simple things like not putting one’s hand in the fire or jumping off a cliff. When these responses get heightened, often by association or personal experiences, they turn into fear.
Fear is caused by whatever we feel has great power of destroying us, or of harming us in ways that tend to cause us great pain. Some fears are instinctive: injury, accident, illness, heartbreak, loss of employment and pain, for example, cause fear instinctively because of their implications for survival. Other fears are learnt: we learn to be afraid of certain people, places or situations because of negative associations and past experiences. However, some fears are acquired while a few are literally thrust upon us. Many gurus and leaders of fringe quasi-religious groups literally instil fear and then exploit their followers to do completely irrational things. I have known dozens of well-read, intelligent people getting swayed by a ‘guru’ to irrational depths. Think, for example, about how certain social groups are feared and persecuted because of an illusion that such people and situations are dangerous and thus must be feared.
There is also an intellectually created fear of ideologies and political systems. Like religion, the very foundation of all political ideologies is fear. Empires and emperors have come and gone. Political upheavals and technological changes, revolutions, wars, famines, pandemics, etcetera have all impacted humanity. However, we have been doing fine for millennia. A few people with their own paranoia tell stories to scare people about an impending tragedy or crisis about to befall humanity and that only following their line of thought is the panacea.
Helplessness and hopelessness are great catalysts of fear. In fact, many a paranoia and phobia germinate therein. A sense of personal loss now or in future is another great igniter of fear. When we are pushed to the wall, the first response assumes the worst consequence and, obviously, this results in fear. Those who manage to overcome this are the brave. This human ability to triumph against all odds is what creates champions. All great achievers—explorers, scientists, artists, soldiers, scholars, sportspersons and others—who break barriers have one common attribute: an ability and resolve to fight the phantoms of their mind.
Now that we understand what fear is, let’s look at how it manifests itself. We often see that the media, especially social media, creates a fear psychosis—with myths about people, positive and negative, merely cross-referencing another person in history. It’s easy to paint another person black when he hardly is so. The fact that you don’t agree with a certain ideology does not give you the right to create fear in others’ minds. Doomsday champions abound and they thrive on generating fear. History is replete with instances where societies have self-destructed on merely perceived fears. Intellectual rationalisation of a crisis often creates more fear than is required by circumstances. Tyrants have exploited this inherent fear in us. Similarly, ideologues have done it in a perverse way, ostensibly for a larger good.
Another class of fear is typified by fear as entertainment. Horror stories and films scare people, but some actually enjoy this scare. Supernatural, science-fiction and ghost stories are also means to overcome our natural fears. Extreme sport is another example. Even simple pastimes as mountain climbing or deep-sea diving actually signify a desire to overcome natural fears. Space travel or fighting a war is frightful. It is a tribute to the human spirit that in spite of our fears we achieve glory in acts that are, on the face of it, beyond human endurance or a natural response mechanism. Psychologists are still debating whether this kind of fear can actually permanently scar our minds. Deviant behaviour has often been triggered by fear, natural or simulated. Paranoia and phobias are psychological aberrations and can be corrected with the right treatment. Fear has to be fought.
Is there anything we actually need to fear? Of course. Anything outside normally accepted experience is a matter of concern and repeated occurrences of the same is cause for fear. Yet, we should not allow any person so much power over our mind to needlessly warp our common sense or emotional response. Human history is full of people with indomitable spirit and courage. It’s all about overcoming fear. Nobody sums it up better than John Lennon: “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
Fear is a mountain waiting to be climbed. It’s up to each one of us to do it in our lifetime.