Are You Carrying Your Fears or Someone Else's?
So, when was the last time you felt afraid? We all know fear, but did you know it can be inherited from your ancestors? How does its emotional impact manifest in our physical bodies, and what can we do to overcome it, if it overpowers us? Find out!
There are seven universal emotions that everyone around the world experiences. And fear is one of them. Even if you didn’t know someone or they didn’t speak your language, you would recognise fear when you saw it.
We all can agree that it’s not a pleasant emotion, but it helped our ancestors survive and evolved into our fight, flight or freeze response in situations we feel are potentially dangerous. Basically, it kept our ancestors and us alive.
So not all that bad huh?
But what about unexplained or irrational phobias - especially if it’s not something that’s happened before or it’s not a situation that you have ever been part of? Here’s something that’ll knock your socks off - phobias can be passed down as memories from your ancestors in your DNA.
Research shows that phobias could be a result of genetic memories passed down over generations. Experiments on mice showed that a traumatic event affects the DNA and changes the brains and behaviour of the next generations, even if they had never experienced the same trauma or situation themselves. This study has been used to provide more insights for phobia and also other conditions like PTSD, anxiety and more.
I also have my own little theory which is not backed by science, but just a hunch - in addition to passing down the fears, it may also be possible to pass down some good memories. Have you been to a place and it feels familiar even if it’s your first time? Or seen an image and you know where it is?
Or been drawn to a specific type of music without knowing why or what the words means? In my own little world, I believe that these too can be passed down from your ancestors. I know people who have had some uncanny incidents that cannot be explained by science.
So if we blame our ancestors for some of our phobias, what about our other fears? Undoubtedly they come from our own lives and experiences like the fear of flying, spiders, or talking in front of a crowd. The fear of public speaking is one of the most common and affects about 77% of the population in the US. If I'm not wrong, there was a period of time when it was reported as THE biggest fear - people were more scared of this than death. Lets have a moment of silence for our brave ones who had this fear and still went on stage.
But if it’s a safe situation, why are we so scared to talk in front of people? The answer is in evolution - it has taught us to be extremely sensitive to gaze. Colin Clifford, a psychologist at the University of Sydney’s Vision Center, says we perceive eyes watching us as an existential threat. He explains that a “direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat.”
And when you’re on stage, that’s pretty much what’s happening with all eyes on you. Next time you feel that, tell yourself you’re safe. The people sitting there are probably thinking about their grocery list half the time. Not that you’re not good, but that people are not as stressed about it or judging you.
Now we know we get fears in inheritance (thank you ancestors), and others from our own lives, dreams and day to day. Let’s pause there - think about some of your day to day ones, how many are actually yours, or have they been put there by someone around you?
I want to tell you a story.
On 24 July 1969, a little girl was born to immigrant parents in a tough neighbourhood. She was not academically-inclined no matter how hard she tried, but excelled in track and field, sports and school plays. She made it through high-school, got a part-time job as a secretary at a law firm, and went to college for one semester. Her real passion was dance and at 18, she enrolled full-time at a dance studio to learn more.
Her mother thought this girl has lost her mind, and will never make it. This created a rift between her and her parents, and after repeated arguments she was asked to leave the house. Becoming homeless and sleeping on the couch at the dance studio, this girl held tightly onto her dream and protected it against her parents fears, and her mother’s convinced beliefs that this would be a disaster.
Eventually, she landed a dancing gig in Europe, which led to bigger opportunities. In spite of seeing steady success, her mother was still adamant that this will fail..
That girl is Jennifer Lopez. I don’t even need to say anything further than that to prove her success. Her name is synonymous with it and with her passion for entertainment, singing, dancing, and all the things she knew she had within and refused to let others’ fears crush it.
Speaking about this, she said, “The truth is - nobody knows what’s inside of you. Only you know what’s inside of you.” Even though she got to where she wanted, there were still people telling her you wouldn’t make it - even though she already had. Today, she has a great bond with her mother, so it’s wonderful they sorted it out.
It’s the same with us - we’re not JLo but we don’t have to be. Listen to the thoughts and narrative that’s playing in your head. I guarantee you that you’ll catch yourself saying words that are not yours. They happen as a reaction rather than a response when you have an opportunity to try something new, or do what you’ve always wanted. Some element of fear and caution of course is healthy. But allowing other peoples’ fears and doubt to fertilise your garden of dreams will only result in fruits that don’t bring you happiness. Jlo says love don’t cost a thing. Well, remember fear costs us many things. Many wonderful things.
While we can practice courage for many fears, what about those that overpower us? Those that we can’t seem to move past, have carried from our childhood or bring us serious anxiety? Before we look at how we can go through them, let’s take a step back and see what’s happening in our brains when we experience what feels like impending doom.
Linda Saab and Arash Javanbakht are both professors of psychiatry at the Wayne State University. They explained that the one factor that decides a small fear response, versus a big one is … context.
Fear starts in the part of the brain that controls our emotional processing - the amygdala. It detects something and begins releasing stress hormones, which cause fast heartbeat, clammy hands, and the desire to find a toilet. FAST.
When this happens, two other parts of the brain join in - but to do something different. The hippocampus (controls learning and memory) and the prefrontal cortex (controls cognitive management) start analysing to help the brain decide if the threat is real or not.
Think of it like Kevin James and Will Smith’s characters in Hitch. Whenever Albert (played by Kevin James) freaks out, Hitch (played by Will smith) steps in and calms him down. Albert is your amygdala. Hitch is your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (I decided to let him be both because Will Smith can act AND sing).
Anyway, coming back from comedy to fear, when the brain decides there’s no real threat, we calm down. But the reverse is also true. If it feels too real, all logical thinking given by Hitch is thrown out the window and we go into Albert mode. This gives rise to emotional and physical panic.
It’s funny when we don’t understand it. But let me change your mind. Imagine turning on the TV, and seeing a wild elephant chasing a safari van. It gets closer as it raises its trunk and trumpets angrily. From all of us watching from our living room, we’d be excited so we may feel some physical sensations of quick breath, fast heartbeat but generally, we’re alright because Hitch is telling us - it’s not real.
Now imagine who may have actually been in that safari van, seen it up close and felt their life flashed before their eyes. If they are in the living room and seeing the same thing on TV, their Albert is not listening to hitch. Because everything Albert is saying is way too real for them. They know it somewhere, but to them that’s petrifying.
Every inch of your body is going to feel it.
Speaking of feeling fear in our physical body, there’s another angle I want to introduce at this point. In the spiritual circles, and I'm using that term very generically, there is a dominant belief that in addition to physical bodies, we have an emotional body too (among others). Whenever an illness shows up in your physical body, it has already existed in your emotional one. Your physical body is the last place it shows up apparently.
Every negative and suppressed emotion carries an energy and eventually shows up and manifests in our physical one as random aches, pains and illnesses. Since we are born to be expressive, repressing the emotions and keeping it all in is against our natural function. This eventually creates physical problems for us.
According to Jill Willard, the author of Intuitive Being, excessive fear and lack of trust can manifest as hormone imbalance, bloating, joint stiffness or even dehydration among other physical symptoms. She says, “Ultimately, it means that we are not using the mental or physical body, either by talking ourselves down to a point of being rational, or using the lungs and breath to calm the heartbeat.”
So, what’s the solution? One of them is right in her quote - use your breath. If you feel fear, you also have its antidote right under your nose. Literally.
Many people think it’s rubbish! Breathing? Yeah right that’s going to help me with impending doom. Apparently, science and spirituality both show that it does. The problem is we expect the results to be immediate. While it will help you steadily, consistency is always key. Don’t diss it if you haven’t tried it properly.
There are so many types of breathing techniques you can try - but I'm going to share one of the easiest ones from Yoga. Yoga actually has 8 arms, and one are the asanas which are the poses. People commonly mistake this for all of yoga. Another of the 8 limbs is what we call pranayama - which is breath work.
The technique that you can try when feeling fear is called Sama Vritti pranayama - also known as equal breathing for the sake of commercialisation. Having these names makes it easier for different cultures to learn as well and not like i know them all myself.
Let’s do this exercise together right now. You need to be seated for this if you can - if you’re on a bus, driving in the car, it’s all good. If you’re mopping the house, sit down for a moment. If sitting is tough, you can lie down too. In which case good night!
Once you’re comfortably seated (no intertwined legs or poses needed), you can cross your legs if you want, or just sit as you usually do. Close your eyes and notice how your breath is right now - don’t do anything, just get a feel of how it is right now. Give yourself 3-5 breaths of this. Now as you breathe in, count 1, 2, 3, 4 in your mind. Hold your breath. And then breathe out for the same - 1, 2, 3, 4.Pause a second and keep repeating this making sure your breaths in and out are for the same no. of counts. Do this for a few minutes and your mind and body should ease down.
If you’re having a little extra anxiety, try counting backwards - this breaks your flow of thoughts because it’s against your brain’s naturally learned counting rhythm. Practice this daily and do this even if you‘re working and start getting stressed at your desk.
Triumphing over fears is a process. Our bodies have learned to react to it in the way they do, so it will take unlearning but it will and can happen. Our minds and brains are way more adaptable than we give them credit for. Use that muscle!
Also always remember, there’s no shame in feeling fear. We sometimes place more pressure and judgment on men when they say they’re afraid, than we do on women. And sometimes we expect women to be more afraid - and that’s not right - our gender, colour of skin, ethnicity, sexual orientation should not be held against us in confronting fears, or when we say, I am scared. We all feel it, we all know it, so we might as well be stronger together and support each other through it. No shame in feeling it, no shame in asking for support - it’s a sign of strength and that you value yourself (which you should).
Fear is a natural response, and the things we are afraid of could be due to genetic memories from our ancestors. Others could be due to evolution or our own experiences, while some are placed in our subconscious by those around us. That’s where you need to trust your gut and yourself - like Jennifer Lopez. If fear ever feels overwhelming because your Albert emotions are overpowering your hitch rational thinking of the brain, then there are many ways you can breathe through it to let calm re-enter - like the Sama Vritti pranayama. Release the repressed fear from your body bit by bit and allow a healthier emotional and physical state.
You got this. I’ll leave you with a quote by Mark Twain - “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”