The Incredible Science Behind Fear

Writer Lisa Felepchuk recently packed up her city life to travel North America in a camper van. It wasn’t until her tiny home took her to the remote reaches of the country that she discovered she was fearful of the dark, moths, bears and failure. Here, she uncovers why we fear what we fear and what we can do about it.

wild bearphoto credit: shutterstock

It was two in the morning and I was asleep in my orange camper van, parked down a remote dirt road somewhere in northwestern Ontario, dreaming about co-parenting a fuzzy orange kitten with John Stamos. It had taken some time to get used to sleeping in our new rolling home. The first few nights were mostly sleepless, my overactive imagination conjuring up the worst possible sources for all the noises I heard outside in the dark. By day, the campsites and parks we called home were glorious natural playgrounds full of friends, man and beast alike, but by night – in my mind, anyway – they would transform into lands of danger and malice. Eventually, though, I found ways to cope with the uncertainty of the dark and get a decent night’s sleep. (Earplugs, mostly.)

That night, though, as Stamos and the kitten and I played on the living room floor of my imagination, I began to feel a slow rocking sensation. Stamos and the little furball began to recede as my half-awake brain tried to identify the movement. Maybe this is part of the dream and we’re falling into a hammock or onto a sailboat, I thought dreamily. But as my senses returned, despite the almost pitch black of the night, I realized the gentle swaying was happening in the real world and not at the hands of a seafaring Stamos. No, there seemed to be something outside the van.

Immediately, my dream was swept away and I was wide awake. I pulled the plugs from my ears and heard snuffling and scratching and the van moved again. There was most definitely something outside – something big. This wasn’t my hyper-imagination – not this time. This was danger – real, imminent danger. Almost certainly.

Facing danger

Wake up! I hissed to my partner, who shot up, pulling the cheap orange plugs from his ears, too. There’s something out there, I whispered as I motioned to the side of the van near the passenger door, where the sound was now coming from. Cautiously, we drew back a corner of the curtain and saw, just inches from the glass, the long, bristly snout of a large black bear.

Danger, in the flesh.

Luckily, there was a van door and a 200-pound man with not un-bearlike qualities himself between me and the predator. And, luckily, the not un-bearlike man made not un-bearlike noises and frightened the beast off into the woods. But that didn’t calm my now-rattled nerves. As I lay awake, I took stock of my fears: bad men in strange campgrounds, being confined to a small space, and the night and all the things that go bump in it, including, of course, bears. I’d been avoiding and coping with most of them quite effectively until now, but when the sun set on the following day, I found myself lying awake in the dark of another strange, remote forest, listening to the same rustling and whispers in the night. Fearing for my life, however irrational it was, I knew I had to do something about it.

Your instinctive reaction to fear

My physiological reaction to coming face to face with a bear – racing heart, sweaty palms, negative thoughts and general discomfort – is normal and natural. Regardless of what you’re frightened of, these symptoms ring true. In fact, they’re part of an important tool that comes pre-installed in our arsenal of human sensations. “Fear is one of our fundamental emotions,” says Noam Shpancer, a professor at Otterbein University in Westerville, OH, and a clinical psychologist with the Center for Cognitive & Behavioral Therapy of Greater Columbus. He has been helping me understand why we fear what we do and whether it does us any good. “It works to turn our attention to threats in our environment so we can respond and protect ourselves,” he says. Fear itself, he explains, isn’t a glitch in our software but a necessary feature of our biological hardware.

Finding comfort in safety

This is all well and good if we’re faced with fight-or-flight situations that require our natural instincts to act quickly, like meeting a predator in the middle of the night. But for most of us, life has never been safer. Our homes, neighbourhoods and vehicles continue to get bigger, securer and stronger. And, according to Statistics Canada, 93 percent of Canadians feel safe where they live. “The odds that you will die or get hurt in violence, natural disaster or some viral plague are vastly lower than ever before,” says Shpancer. Basically, our bodies’ software has become outdated and we’re in need of a serious OS update because how and what we’ve been programmed to fear is becoming obsolete.

Most of the time, you see, there is no bear out there in the dark. And even when there is, there are metal barriers, education and technology that can be used to fend him off. The problem is, though, that your body doesn’t know the bear is on the other side of a metal door. Thanks to the slow-on-the-uptake nature of evolution, it still thinks that we’re in a cave somewhere with just a rock and a stick to defend ourselves and our brood from an almost certain toothy death. We’re not, though – not anymore. So the question becomes, what can we do about it? It turns out that living in a busy, lamp-lit city for so long may have amplified my fear of the dark without me realizing it. “People often think they avoid things because they fear them,” says Shpancer.

Why it’s good to be afraid

“In fact, more often than not, they fear things because they have avoided them for too long, hence failing to develop adequate knowledge of those feared things, how to handle them and how to properly handle fear itself.” This can be said for all fears – not just of the dark. It’s easy to develop a fear of being alone if you don’t get adequate solo time. And if you’ve been boarding airplanes since you were a child, you’re significantly less likely to have a fear of flying. When I was all of a sudden faced with the crushing darkness of the Canadian wilderness at night, I found myself ill prepared.

“Research has shown that attempting to suppress fear can actually intensify the feeling,” says Margee Kerr, a teacher and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. “It’s the whole idea of ‘don’t pay attention to the white elephant,’ and that just increases the attention and focus on the subject.” We’ve all heard the expression “Face your fears and your fears will disappear,” but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that if you don’t face them, not only will they persist, they’ll also become more frightening. “Avoidance works to reduce fear in the short term,” says Shpancer. “But, alas, it increases in the long term – and life is long term. So when it comes to fear, the only way out is through.”

And so the bear, in a way, did me a big favour: It made me realize that I had to go through my fear. There’s flooding (exposure therapy) of course, but it’s always seemed so…horrible. The idea of being thrown into absolute darkness in an all-or-none attempt to conquer my fear seemed unbearable.

Mindfulness and fear

Instead, I turned to a solution that’s being recommended by a growing number of doctors and practitioners: mindfulness, which is having a moment in the mainstream media. It appealed to the digital nomad in me – the van dweller who wants to be able to solve any problem from any location with just my brain, my fingers and an Internet connection.

“A lot of research is now supporting what Buddhist monks have been doing for years,” says Kerr. “Mindfulness meditation brings awareness to what our bodies are doing. It’s very exciting to see neuroscience confirm this age-old practice.”

Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that draws our consciousness into the present. Meditation, breathing and thought recognition are key components of this holistic health practice, which takes time and patience to master. It’s not a quick solution, like popping a pill to calm your nerves, but it works.

Laura C. Meyer, a therapist who teaches mindfulness at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, educates clients on how to sit with uncomfortable emotions, like fear. “When someone realizes that an emotion like fear isn’t going to wipe them out, they can learn to be OK with the feeling,” says Meyer.

The science behind fear and being brave

The first step for at-home practice is to probe your thoughts. Meditation may appear to be simply sitting alone in a quiet room for a while, but it’s far more. “I work with clients to get them to be curious about their lives, about themselves, about where they come from and about emotions and thoughts,” says Meyer.

For me, this means taking a few moments at dusk and dawn to be present in the near night. I sit in the darkness and breathe, listening to the creatures – not good or bad, just creatures – stirring outside my van. This new 20-minute practice, which I do daily, hasn’t fully conquered my fear of the dark just yet, but I now recognize each emotion and can categorize it accordingly.

It has helped me understand that there’s a place for my fear. My run-in with a black bear in the middle of the night proves that there are situations that require our fear alarm to sound, no matter what my partner says about his ability to fight off large predators. But if it’s a choice between missing out on the amazing experiences that life has to offer and avoiding fear of a threat that hasn’t been relevant for thousands of years, it’s really no choice at all.

Because the fear of missing out – FOMO – is very real in 2017. But I’ve been even feeling less and less of that these days.