Our survival depends on fear, our ultimate warning indicator. But, when unchecked, this reaction can paralyze us from experiencing what we want in life. As my regular blog readers and those who’ve read my spirituality memoir, “A Reluctant Spirit” know, one of my personal ongoing challenges is to keep fear in balance.

Biology factors can induce fear.

In 2005, Harvard researchers found what stimulates fear in the amygdale (an almond-shaped mass of gray matter found deep in the brain that is responsible for our “fight, flight or freeze” responses): the gene stathmin, which produces a protein that activates fear and anxiety. Mice with less stathmin were less wary of open or exposed areas, places that traditionally pose more risk of being nabbed by a predator.

Animals—from humans to birds and snakes—all possess an amygdale. Scientists said that being born with fear and acquiring memories from dangerous situations is crucial to survival. The stathmin gene changes brain circuitry and behavior by helping create the fear-based memory.

External factors impact fearfulness.

Bad experiences, culture and religious intolerance can ramp up fear. On a Discovery Channel website (science.howstuffworks.com), author Julia Layton reports how fear can be conditioned, or learned. In one study, a scientist repeatedly showed a photo of a specific object and followed it with an electric shock to the study subjects. The result? The subjects developed a phobia of that item.

Layton also wrote about universal fears found only in some cultures. An example of this is found in Japan. The phobia—taijin kyofusho— is a fear of offending someone by showing an excess of modesty or respect.

Karl Albrecht, Ph.D. stated that humans experience five basic fears:

  • Extinction—i.e., death
  • Mutilation—i.e., injury to the body
  • Loss of autonomy—i.e., being controlled by circumstances
  • Separation—i.e., fear of abandonment or  rejection
  • Ego death—i.e., humiliation or loss of one’s sense of worthiness

In an article Albrecht wrote for PsychologyToday.com, he equated religious bigotry to the fifth type of fear: ego death. An example of this is when others tell someone their religion is wrong and they are going to hell. That intolerance can lead the person in the “wrong” faith to believe,

“What if my god isn’t the right god?…Without god on my side, I’ll be at the mercy of impersonal forces of the environment.” In my opinion, this situation also causes a fear of death, since if one believes they are no longer bound for heaven, they will fear death more than if they felt good about their destination in the afterlife.

Personally, I believe the media fuels our fears, as well. Whether it’s through horror movies, news programs dwelling on the collapse of society or excessive coverage of a heinous crime, the act of witnessing the sights, sounds and thoughts of the frightened bring those worries into our homes. We experience the pain as if we’d actually witnessed the crime taking place or the demon dragging a movie character out of bed.

Fear is a communication mechanism.

Dr. Albrecht suggested that we let go of our notion of fear as the welling up of evil forces within us and recognize it as basic information. By seeing this emotion as a warning message, we can calmly articulate the origin of our fear and lessen its control on us.