Covering the Basics: What is Fear and Why is Fear Important?

We have a lot to talk about! If we are going to really dig in to a conversation about something as apparently bold and controversial as moving from fear to safety by decreasing indifference and increasing love at work, then we’ll need a shared understanding of some basic concepts. I’m not a neurologist nor a psychologist; rather, I’m trained as a social scientist. So when it comes to those fields, when I say basic, I mean basic. But over time we will hear from experts who can help deepen our insights. You may have expertise to share too. I look forward to that!

For now, to get us started, these next few blog posts will explore what fear is, why it is important, when it is good and bad, and what to do about it when it’s bad. Then, of course, we’ll also take a look at love and safety. I’ll begin to sprinkle in stories from research interviews, and, I’m certain, this conversation will take off! Let’s get started!

What is fear and why is fear important? Before we go after eliminating fear, let’s understand what fear is and the purpose it serves.

Fear is an ancient, instinctive response to a physical or psychological threat of harm. This important and useful mechanism evolved to help us align our internal condition and our actions with the realities of the world around us. Fear helps us respond to the external environment in a way that aids our survival. And that’s a good thing. Fear is our friend!

The fear response generally works like this:  

1.       We experience a threat stimulus. Something happens to jeopardize our well-being. A car runs a red light. Someone breaks into your home while you’re away. You’re excluded from a critical team meeting. Your boss yells at you.

2.       In response, the body releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream.

3.       Those chemicals tell the body’s systems to adjust – suppressing non-essential systems like digestion, increasing sweat and heart rate, heightening vision and hearing, activating the muscular system, and so on.

4.       Those chemicals also signal the amygdala to focus on the danger and store the situation in our memory. Rational thought processing is short circuited.

5.       Those physical reactions culminate in either fight or flight to increase our chances of survival.

It is important to point out that living in chronic fear of a threat takes a terrible toll on people. Impacts include diabetes, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, weakened immune system, difficulty regulating emotions and making rational decisions, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, decreased fertility, and cancer. Participants in my research interviews reported these same kinds of impacts from workplace threats and fear they endured. We will explore this more in future posts.

Still, the fear response itself is a normal and even desirable protective response. Consider what would happen if we didn’t respond to danger with fear. Imagine having no fear response when encountering an aggressive dog, or crossing paths with a stranger holding a weapon in a dark alley, or when the brakes fail on your car. In each situation we could suffer harm if we don’t sense danger, feel fear, and respond. Such oblivion would be abnormal. In fact, Urbach–Wiethe disease and Williams Syndrome are two examples of a lack of normal fear response.

So perhaps technically we don’t really want to eliminate fear itself. Fear is an important and helpful mechanism. Instead, we seek to eliminate the threat, and certainly chronic threats, that prompt the fear response.

For shorthand, we say we aim to eliminate fear at work, but really we want to eliminate the causes of the fear response at work.

What examples do you have of eliminating the threats or causes of fear at work? What was the threat and what happened when it was eliminated?

Next up: Can’t a little fear be a good thing?