Fear And The Science Behind Your Fear

The science of fear

Fear is something we can live with every day but do we really understand how fear works and the part it plays in our life?

Let’s pull fear apart and have a look at the science of fear and how it works so that we can understand it better.

The dictionary describes fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat”.

I describe Fear as “the emotion experienced due to the uncertainty of not knowing an outcome of an event that is important to you”.

Fear – Friend or Foe?

Fear will inevitably come into your life, but it comes in waves.  I have learned that fear is “like an onion”; over time you peel back layers of it.  You expect it to come to an end but you really just hit another level of it and start to understand that you are at the beginning point of yet another important journey or phase of your life.

Fear isn’t always the villain it’s made out to be.  Fear has an important purpose in your life as it keeps you moving or evolving toward something different.  When everything is going well you would more than likely be happy just to stick around and enjoy the party, but when you do that, you can get “stuck” and life is about “flow” and moving forward.

When you get “stuck” by fear it grips you.  It can get to the point of being almost paralysing and then you realise that you are “stuck”, knowing you can’t go back, but not sure how to go forward.  And so the fear is heightened and becomes even more paralysing and more scary.

The question then is, why does feeling fear make you more fearful?

Your Brain Runs Patterns To Help You

Let’s have a look at what is going on in one area your brain…..

Our brains are made up of a series of nerves cells called neurons.  These neurons then reach out to other nerve cells and form a neural net – just like a group of people reach out to each other and form friendship groups – the nerve cells in our brains do the same.  Each place where they connect is linked back to a thought, a memory or an experience.

Your brain does the hard sorting work for you by automatically accessing the little filing cabinet filled with similar thoughts, events and feelings and serves up similarities between events, emotions and thoughts for you on a platter – we call them emotions and memories.

The brain does the work for you to make sure that mental overload doesn’t send you batty.   Your brain acts as the mental filtration system by introducing shortcuts.  These mental shortcuts are referred to as “heuristics” – to sort through all your past experiences for you.  Kind of like your own internal Google!

Take a minute to digest that. So basically, the brain recognises what you notice and sends memories of similar  experiences from the past. This is like matching a pattern from the past to something that is happening in the present.


Your Story

In the blink of an eye, your brain will go back to all the of thoughts, emotions and experiences you have stored from the past, which has become your story about an event.  This story is your story, it is not the only story and it is not the only truth – but it is your truth – and everyone’s story about a similar thing or event is potentially different because we all have different past experiences, which make you an individual.  Every day you write your story!

Stephen Covey summed it up beautifully –

“We see the world as we are, not as it is”.

For example: I have been a witness in 13 armed hold ups (as I worked in financial services for a number of years).  The interesting thing for me was that when the police took statements after the hold up, everyone told a different story about the exact same event. No two statements were identical or even similar, even though we had been in the same place with the same events occurring.  This is because everyone expressed their observation, their fear – their truth.  We had all had different experiences in the past which formed our view of what was happening in the present.  In essence, everyone was relaying their own reality!


It’s The Tape That’s Always Playing

This is why people can be so adamant about defending their position in a conversation or argument because in a way they identify with their story or their truth – it becomes part of their identity.

What we also know is that the more we practice something (meaning: take action or do) the stronger the relationship between those nerve cells becomes – just like a group of girlfriends who brunch every Sunday, they become closer over time.

They share stories and can identify with what their friends experience.  Even though these experiences occurred in the past but you can picture them as if they are happening right now.

For example: You are about to go into a doctor’s appointment you have been worried about for weeks.  The last time you saw that doctor in that hospital, you got really bad news.  As you push the door to the hospital open, it all seems crazily familiar, your heart starts pumping faster and your fear starts to rise, so you say to yourself, “think positively”.  Then sitting there in the same waiting room, the news from that last appointment is all you can think about.  The fear rises higher and further…you’re expecting bad news again!

What chance did you think you have of being relaxed this time?! For weeks you were telling yourself that it was going to be bad based on your last experience.

That one positive thought didn’t stand a chance because it hadn’t had the opportunity to expand or grow.  Without knowing it, you had been practicing fear for weeks leading into that appointment and it was suffocating you now.


It’s A Pattern

All too often our focus is on what we don’t want rather than what we do want. Even though you wanted to hear good news this time your focus was still on the bad news from last time. That’s the pattern you were running.

The positive here is that it applies equally to positive and negative practices or patterns.  The good news is that when you choose to stop practicing what you don’t want in your life, the neural nets become weaker and weaker and will eventually no longer have an association or an effect on you.  But if you want to change it, you need to choose to do that.  The choice has to be a practice – something you consciously do day after day after day.

“You are what you repeatedly do.  

Excellence, then, is not an Act but a Habit”.


This is why, when you practice something positive over and over, the neural nets become stronger and stronger.

As they say “practice makes perfect“.

This is why fear begets fear, anxiety begets anxiety, but also love begets love, joy begets joy and gratitude begets gratitude!


 You Can Consciously Choose To Change Patterns

“Turn your wounds into wisdom”.

Oprah Winfrey

You need three things to make change in your life:

  1. Focus and a very clear picture of what you want in your life.
  2. The right tools.
  3. Resolving the beliefs that are holding you back.


What patterns can you see running your life?  Are you ready to change your mind and focus on what you do want rather than what you don’t want?  What is your story set up in misery or gratitude?

Like this article? Please share it and help your community learn more about the part that fear is playing in their life.

Love Gai

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Fear And The Science Behind Your Fear — 4 Comments

  1. Fear of a cancer recurrence. My cancer diagnosis rattled me to my core. I am trying to learn how to live without fear in my life. Thank you

    • Tammy
      Fear is one of the things I talk about a lot here. Particularly fear of recurrence as it is so prevalent after a cancer diagnosis. There are a number of articles here to give you actions to deal with and combat that fear. In essence, try different actions, find one or two that work for you and then practice them every day. Its a start to help feel more empowered over the fear. Gai

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