Fear & Anxiety Made Simple


Fear & anxiety are complicated subjects but you don't need to be a neuroscientist to understand the basics. Stuart Wood demystifies fear & helps you understand why & how it affects our lives each day.

Anxiety & Fear: Stigma or Stimulus?

[Fear & anxiety are all around us]Many of us are afraid to admit that we have fear because we think that others will see it as a weakness.

If that is you, let me put your mind at rest.

Fear is natural, wired into us, an automatic response that we cannot control, important for protection & useful for survival. It is part of who we are.

There are intense disputes within the scientific & medical communities about the difference between fear & anxiety. For simplicity, the difference between the meaning of fear & the meaning of anxiety is:

So, we may think of fear as 'anxiety which is attached to a specific thing or circumstance' (Horwitiz, 2013). To deny it is unhealthy, even dangerous. If you didn't have fear of some sort you would be at increased risk.

There is a small group of people who do not feel fear & cannot emotionally distinguish a potentially lethal situation from one that is 'mundane' or normal. These rare individuals either have a specific illness/disease, or they have experienced brain damage following some trauma. In both cases, the pathways in the brain that form part of the fear response are either absent or adversely affected.

Allowing fear to control our lives is also unhealthy & dangerous. Those of us in the grip of fear fail to achieve what we are capable of because we cannot, or will not, try new things. We become imprisoned, encaged inside its bars.

So, why are we afraid, why do we have fears?


Why Are We Afraid?

We are afraid because it alerts us to possible danger & helps us to stay safe. Fear triggers our fright, flight or fight response.

As we mentioned above, the detection of fear is part of our make up. It is an automatic response, built into our brains. We cannot control it but we can learn how to respond to it & how to challenge it when we need to.

Fear is part of our self-protection & self-defence mechanisms.

But how do we become afraid?


How Do We Become Afraid?

[Fear & anxiety are all around us]Our current fears are what we have learned through life up to this point in time, the influence of our past.

Responding to danger is dealt with by two parts of the brain:

Both areas develop as we we grow up & experience life. Our brain uses both parts to keep us safe & respond to threats.

We actually detect danger long before we are consciously aware of it.

The subconscious areas receives messages from all of our senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch & taste. It links each experience to a 'risk'. For example, if we have put our hand in a fire & been burnt, the subconscious part of our brain links fire with burning, pain or danger. This process is called pairing. As the subconscious brain receives a new message, it is checked against other experiences, stored in the subconscious, for that message. The message is then ranked as safe or danger. When the subconscious detects danger, it responds by releasing hormones, diverting blood supply from the gut to the muscles whilst releasing glucose into the bloodstream for fuel. The blood vessels to the muscles open up so more blood can flow. The result is that we are on high alert & our body is primed for escape or attack. Science calls this state 'arousal'. We usually call this state 'butterflies' or 'nerves'. Everything happens so quickly that the messages have not had chance to reach the thinking areas of our brain. We sometimes call this our 'gut response'.

Meanwhile, messages are relayed from the subconscious areas of the brain to the conscious or thinking areas. Here, our brain rationalises what is happening, giving us a conscious interpretation of what is happening. This interpretation is also affected by what we have experienced growing up.

So, someone who has grown up with cats or dogs usually interprets meeting one as safe or desirable experience. Someone who has had a bad experience with a cat or dog will usually interpret meeting one as a threat or danger.

As you can see, each person will have a different experience of the same message (see, touch, hear, smell or taste) based upon their previous experience.

This is why we each respond differently to people, items, events & messages.

In other words, many of our fears are based on what we have previously experienced.

BUT whereas our subconscious brain remembers everything that that it detects, our conscious brain does not remember everything that has happened. So, there are some instances where we are afraid, but don't know why.

Consider the driver who, after colliding with a car coming the wrong way down a one way street, later feels uneasy in lots of different places that were not a problem before & had no clear connection with the accident. After lots of pondering & probably some professional counselling, they discover that it is red ties that makes them feel nervous & uneasy. Eventually, they discover that the driver of the car that hit them head on was wearing a red tie. They couldn't remember it, but their subconscious did: now, an encounter with a red tie is tagged as danger & the body is primed for action.

Fear is an essential part of our existence, but as we can see, our brain does not always draw the correct conclusion.

What happens when our fear response is wrong?


Fear: The Insidious Cancer

Fear is an emotion, a major driver of our response to situations. Fear is real. Fear is felt. Fear is powerful.

An important byproduct of fear is lack of empathy: our brain isn't interested in the bigger picture. It is focused solely on us & on keeping safe, whatever that involves. So, any culture which is tainted or driven by fear lacks the awareness of others, apart from the competitive threat they pose.

Simon Sinek has a perfect illustration of the difference between many of our typical work cultures & a culture of empathy (this example is applicable to any relationship, anywhere).

[We hide behind masks when driven by fear]Those of us who have either experienced significant or prolonged trauma, particularly when growing up, may choose to isolate ourselves from the source of our pain. When that source is people, we often withdraw or create a false persona or 'mask' that we show to others. We often interpret fear as weakness or a sign of failure, so we fight to keep control wherever & whenever possible. We become detached from the real world as we create our own world in which we are safe. When this becomes extreme, we can become delusional & fall into mental illness: we become narcissists, sociopaths or psychopaths. Our energy is spent trying keep up our illusion of being 'okay' & on top of life. We become permanently tired, weary, even exhausted. Eventually we can fall into depression.

But what happens on the way to our illness?

We become toxic to relationships at home, at work & at play. We manipulate situations to protect ourselves & get our own way, which gradually becomes a way of life, our modus operandi; the way we operate. Other people become a route to obtaining what we want, irrespective of personal cost to them (& often us). In these situations, fear destroys mutual trust, hinders or prevents communications & breaks down relationships. In other words, fear counteracts the 3 most important ingredients for success.

We can have the most prestigious & rigorous training programme in place, but unless we factor in fear, that training never achieves its goal. When we have done our learning, fear still drives our actions, preventing us from doing what is right in favour of what favours us.

Teams are disrupted & destroyed, productivity falls, staff turnover escalates as morale plummets.

Fear at work is something that, in many cases, is ignored, papered over, brushed aside or simply denied. Because of our own fears, we ignore the elephant in the room.

Fear is NOT failure. In its right place & proportion, nerves & some adrenaline are exactly what we need to help us face issues & get started on solving them.

TOO MUCH FEAR is a killer. So too is fear which is ignored.

We need a culture in which people can:

This is what an empathetic culture looks like.

We may have the best qualifications, be the most capable, achieve the highest scores in tests & evaluations, but unless we are true to ourselves & lead by creating situations & environments in which others thrive, without fear, we will never achieve the best for the collective good.

The good news is, when we aware of fear & its effects, especially our own fears & how they influence our interactions, decisions & actions, we are in a position to bring about change in ourselves & those around us.

So, how can we start to tackle the grip of fear on our lives?


Fear Awareness: The Route To Success

Facing our current fears allows us to move on from our past to create a new story, a different future.

Little of real value happens without effort. Scientists & engineers call the effort required to start moving (or resistance to movement) 'inertia'. Setting fire to a log needs a lot of energy (heat) before it will start to burn.

With people, anxiety & fear are our inertia, our barrier to getting started; to changing. Change is the only thing that makes it possible to go from where we are to where we want to be, the only way for something to happen differently. If that is improving our life, our relations, our chances to succeed, our level of happiness & contentment, then change is worth the time & effort involved.

We must learn how to challenge our brain when it tells us that something is too hard. We will never know unless we try!

By being aware of how our fears can hold us back & understanding how to challenge those fears & prove them wrong, we empower ourselves to be set free & achieve so much more than we imagined possible.

But how do you overcome your fears?


How Do You Conquer Your Fears?

Psychology has a large number of tools to help people face their fears but NONE work unless we engage with them & do the work.

The basic premise of all methods is that we face them, tackle them & conquer them.

Remember, not everyone can change. But those who want to change can.

We have found a remarkably successful model is to use a source of fear, reptiles & minibeasts, to help you face your fears, challenge them & overcome them through interaction with the source of fear. Psychologists call this encounter therapy.

If you would like help conquering fears for yourself, friends or work colleagues, please contact us. We would love to hear from you.


Overcoming Our Fears Helps Confidence Everywhere

By encountering our fears, we change the way in which our brain responds, its 'go to' or 'default' response. Just as fear is transferrable across situations, so is recovery from fear & conquering it, which we call building confidence.

When we overcome fears, we see, feel & experience what it means to achieve something we previously thought to be impossible. Sure, you may not encounter animals like ours in your normal, daily life, BUT you will encounter situations that need courage to tackle them, especially when those situations or tasks are new to us.

Building confidence in one situation gives us a reference point, something we can look back to & remind ourselves that our brain & feelings are not always right. We can then use that experience in a different situation to achieve the same results.

When we challenge our doubts & fears by having a go, either alone or with help from others, we can succeed, as we did before, often to our own amazement.

If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Stuart using the details immediately below.


Return to the 'Understanding Made Simple' contents page for more articles.

Meet The Beasts: Contact Information

More Information From:

Dr Stuart Wood
c/o Meet the Beasts
31 Burder Street
LE11 1JH

Telephone: + 44 1509 553362
Mobile: + 44 7814 628123
E-mail: stuart@meetthebeasts.com