Irrational fear never led to anywhere good

Fear.  It seems to plague most humans at every turn.  So the question I ask myself is, “Is all this fear doing us any good?”  Immediately, I want my answer to be a resounding, “No!”  But then I think, “Why are humans always in constant fear of everything?”  We fear getting a job.  If we have it, we fear losing it.  We fear finding a mate.  If we get one, we fear losing that mate.  We fear not having enough money or enough friends or about if that favorite Chinese food restaurant we love so much is really closed today because I want dumplings.  We fear not being good enough, and if we are good enough, we fear being an imposter.  The bottom line is that most of us fear an incredible amount of things on a daily basis, most of which is entirely irrational fear.  So where did all this fear come from?

Ordinarily, humans do not just create something out of nothing. We must have an innate ability to have certain emotions, cognitions, etc. for advantageous reasons.  There must be some reason we behave the way we do.  The problem is when these responses become maladaptive instead of adaptive.  That is when the real problem strikes.  Fear itself is an evolutionarily adaptive response when it’s appropriate.  For instance, if there’s a lion around, I should probably fear it so that I’ll take the appropriate pre-cautions not to get eaten.  In other words, fear makes me run the hell away from the lion, and that’s good.  Perhaps more relevant to our modern lives is the following scenario: I should fear creepy men (or women) walking in dark allies, especially if they have a weapon in hand.  You get the point.

So rational fear is a very adaptive response, but irrational fear is not.  It brings will it all sorts of anxiety, poor performance, cognitive impairment, and negative health consequences associated with all this anxiety.  Research Robert Sapolsky does a whole line of research focusing on why the high levels of stress humans experience has negative health outcomes.  For instance, when I start to worry too much about what I’m going to eat or who likes me or if I’ll keep my job, then I become paralyzed.  Instead of focusing on what is existent and where I could be going, I focus on what could happen and all of the negative consequences that could fall thereafter.  The amazing thing is that when we slow down enough to confront our fear and say “no” to it, doors start to open.

This is especially true with my teaching.  For instance, recently my class has not been gelling so well, so I had started to fear coming into it.  What will they say?  Will people be engaged?  How will I change this?  Instead of focusing on what still could be – a good class – I was focusing on all my fears about what might be.  In that state, I was allowing all of my fears to come true without even realizing it.  So today, I walked in and decided that I would just be in my classroom – moment by moment – not fearing where it had been or where it was going.  As I did this, I became more and more interested in what my students had to say.  At one point, I asked a question and a student responded with, “Well, according to our author, the answer would be yes.”  And without thinking I responded, “Well, what do YOU think?”  Without realizing it, I had become caught up in hearing all of my students’ voices rather than fearing that I wasn’t covering all the points of the lecture for the day or wasn’t asking the right questions.  And in that fear-free moment, the class blossomed.   People who haven’t been talking for weeks started to raise hands and give their points of view.  It was beautiful.

And then it happened.  After a brief moment of enjoying that class, I let fear creep back in.  I then feared that the next class wouldn’t be as great.  And then I stopped myself.  In realizing how maladaptive my fear had become, I decided to let it go.  This example only illustrates the multitude of fears I face on daily basis.  I feel we are left with a society-wide problem: the problem of irrational fear.  How did we get here and how do we get out?

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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