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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

No Fear in Love

Webster’s Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” While some people enjoy experiencing the frightful thrills inherent to haunted houses, roller coasters and horror movies, the kind of fear inspired by actual traumatic events is an unwelcome trigger to our nervous system, activating a series of physiological responses in our body and brain that prepares us to deal with the perceived threat. The ability to experience fear is essential to our survival as a species. Without what author Gavin de Becker calls the “gift of fear,” we would take risks that compromise our safety without the protection of an alarm system to warn us of impending harm.

The part of the brain responsible for managing our fear response is called the amygdala, an almond shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe. A threatening stimulus, such as seeing a potentially poisonous snake coiled on the path ahead of you while out hiking, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which then activates areas in the brain responsible for the motor functions of fight or flight. Stress hormones are released and the sympathetic nervous system ramps up to deal with the threat. Other bodily changes occur that make us more efficient in the face of danger, including increased blood flow and glucose supplies to the skeletal muscles, a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, accelerated breathing and dilated pupils. Organs not vital to the survival response like the gastrointestinal system slow down.

This fear response can also be triggered when we encounter something or someone unfamiliar. From a bio-evolutionary perspective, survival depended upon identifying who was in your tribe, and who was from another, possibly hostile one. Encountering a stranger, especially one with features unlike your own, triggers a largely unconscious alert in your brain as it considers whether this other human is benign or poses a threat to your well-being. If the encounter goes well, the brain registers this piece of information and if enough positive experiences are logged the brain identifies this other being as “friend” rather than “foe” and the alarm stops triggering each time another encounter occurs.

Using a functional MRI scanner, psychologist Jonas Kaplan found that when people are read a series of statements that do not align with their beliefs and values, the same part of the brain that becomes activated in the face of physical threat lights up. In other words, being confronted with an opposing position on any given issue is perceived by the brain as a threat to safety. This may help to explain why it is so difficult for people to change their point of view even in the face of rather compelling new evidence. Another potential impediment is that the brain likes to use the neural pathways it has already established, as forming new ones requires a great deal of energy and attention. Our brains like to conserve energy and be efficient.

The current racial and political climate and pandemic are challenging many of us to examine our belief systems. This is an uncomfortable process, in part due to our neurobiology, which is wired for safety and self-protection. Expanding our tolerance of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is crucial to growth and learning. Becoming curious about the wonderfully rich diversity of cultures and races and peoples on this planet allows us to grow in qualities like compassion, empathy, grace, patience, humility and love, qualities that promote peace and understanding in a world increasingly fractured by fear and hatred.

1 John 4:18 states, “There is no fear in love.” Examine your fears. Don’t shy away from them. They will tell you where you need to heal and grow. My father taught me that courage is being afraid and moving forward anyway. It is how he survived the war. It is how we will survive this current crisis, and even learn how to thrive.

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