Fear: The Border Town Between Chaos and Control

Fear: The Border Town Between Chaos and Control

Fear: The Border Town Between Chaos and Control

Fear: The Border Town Between Chaos and Control

Here is a guest blog post from Dr. Sarah Sarkis, one of our FRC advisors…


During my early years of training, I was tasked with assessing people in various inpatient settings. This is why, on one particular day, I found myself standing in a hallway, waiting for an elevator, beside a patient I had never met before.

As we waited, I thumbed through his record. I noticed similarities. We were roughly the same age; he grew up fifteen minutes from where I lived; we both came from large New England families. There was so much I could relate to, so much we had in common. There was only one glaring difference— He was awaiting trial on multiple assault charges.

There was a buzz in my stomach. A low but consistent drumbeat—a signal to stay alert. I noted the hallway was barren; we were alone. I entered the elevator first, pressed the button, then stepped to the back of the car. Before I could even blink, he stretched out his arm, stopping the door from closing. Suddenly, that drumbeat began to thump with more urgency. I heard the thump-thump reverberation in my ears.

"Have you read my chart?" he asked.

"I have," I replied.

"And you just gave me control of the elevator panel?"—pointing out that I had stepped to the back and given him pole position.

My mind went into overdrive. Time slowed to a crawl.  

"Don’t do that again," he said. "That’s just stupid."

This is the most intimate moment I’ve yet had with fear. A deep, primal experience that hit me like a tidal wave. I was swept away before I even knew what happened.

After this, I became intrigued by what fear does to us, in those moments when we are under its spell. There’s an intoxication that comes with this type of intensity. It alters us, changes our consciousness. But, as with all forms of intoxication, it’s tricky to navigate.

Fear operates on the border town between chaos and control. And that’s exactly where we’re going in this installment of Shrink Rap, into that border town, in an attempt to strip fear down to its bones.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is fear?

Tricky question.

Fear is both an emotion and a feeling. There’s a difference (at least to scientists and shrinks). Emotions are instinctual and primary. They are also limited—we only have so many inborn emotions (seven). Feelings are numerous, and arrive after a period of reflection. Antonio Damasio, the famed neuroscientist, summed it up nicely: "Emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes."

Fear, turns out, tangos in both spheres. Neurobiologically, fear operates as an inborn emotion, like what I experienced in the elevator. Psychologically, fear is a powerful feeling, a summary of our relationship with self-regulation, control, and vulnerability. In order to source its wisdom, which is our goal here, we need to explore both.

Neurologically, fear originates in the amygdala, which is the front edge of the brain’s basic threat detection network. This structure rallies a vast, integrated network of neurologic and physical systems that are entirely focused on self-preservation. Yes, we have an ass-saving network.

This network gives us a surge of energy from a cocktail of chemicals, including adrenaline, cortisol and, most notably, norepinephrine. These chemicals account for that drumbeat in my ears, and the slowing and speeding up of time.

Fear is so disruptive, it immediately overrides our strong preference for logic, shutting down higher cortical centers, and activating deep midbrain structures. This is also why the notion of "fearlessness" is a myth, an urban legend, perpetuated by popular culture.

Fear is part of our survival system. Except in extremely rare cases—where the brain develops calcifications in the amygdala—fear is an unavoidable aspect of our human experience. Also, it’s our greatest evolutionary ally.

Without fear, we can’t protect ourselves. We’re vulnerable to all kinds of risks, and we can’t learn to anticipate and avoid danger. In fact, fearless is as dangerous to your survival as being clinically paranoid (fear gone wrong). Basically, without this emotion, we’re sitting ducks.

However, if our interest is long-term change, knowing about the neurobiology of fear only gets us so far. We’ve covered the bottom up portion of the equation, but the top-down part—which is where self-regulation lives—requires understanding its impact on our psychology.

Fear has deep roots. Our fear response is always reflective of our past. It tells us how our regulatory system was first laid down, from the bedrock up. This means that fear can be a potent teacher, once we know where to look for it in ourselves.

Hunting fear means getting up close with our vulnerability. We come nose to nose with our frailties, the aspects of our personality that are shrouded in shame, the messages and mottos we picked up from family, friends, culture and society. Half the battle is observing these border towns where you reach the outer edges of your comfort zone. And yet, I have found that most of us are entirely unaware of how fear has shaped our interior architecture.

This is also why, when working with patients, I always ask if they live by a motto. Fear hides in these kinds of spaces, in mottos, in plain sight. It comes cloaked in disguises; it’s right on the opposite side of what you consider to be some of your greatest strengths. Often fear can trick us into thinking it’s something it’s not. Fear of failure often looks like ambitious risk-taking. Aloofness and humor hides shyness and vulnerability. Anger distracts from worthiness. Avoidance and procrastination obscure imposter syndrome and perfectionism (what I refer to as "shame-ism"). And I could go on and on.

With fear, you have to know what you are looking for in order to source its wisdom. Half the battle is setting up observation posts in those border towns beyond your comfort zone. Observe how without fear and its relationship with trauma and pain—both physical and emotional— we would never learn from our experiences. We would be entirely at the mercy of fate, luck and good fortune in order to maintain our safety. Fear brings us right into those interior border towns where opposites exist with equal force— between intrigue and terror, chaos and control, risk and security. It’s in this arena that much of the work of self-regulation and radical self-awareness takes place.


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