Fear – what is it, and how can it show up when making behavioural changes?


January 12, 2021

Fear is primarily a survival mechanism, designed to help our early ancestors flee from danger, it’s main purpose to trigger an awareness of problems so we can do something about them.  

When sensing 'danger' the amygdala – the part of our brain responsible for regulating emotions, automatically becomes activated, signalling the release cortisol (the primary stress hormone) preparing the body for ‘fight or flight.'

Physically we experience things like an increased heart rate, accelerated breathing, sweaty palms and higher adrenaline levels. In short, it’s clever mechanism that alerts us to danger, thus keeping us safe.

However, as we’ve evolved we now contend with events to be fearful that don’t include life or death consequences; a surprise meeting with the boss, public speaking or stepping into the unknown such as arriving in a new city – that same part of the brain (the amygdala) triggers the same chemical reaction and our bodies go through the same physiological reaction.

How can fear show up in the face of making behavioural changes?

The brain likes being in control, to feel the familiar and is hardwired to resist uncertainty. The brain has learnt that its safer in the known, so we avoid taking the difficult steps to change, even though deep down we know it is better for us.

Changing behaviours in the context of our long-standing habits is a not easy – it requires stepping out of our comfort zone. The ‘familiar and safe’ sense of security provided by the old behaviours that we have known for so long that we can do them without thinking, must make way for the new and this can create fear and tension. So when we’re committed to a lifestyle change, such as quitting smoking, this fear can manifest in thoughts like ‘the cigarettes help get me through stressful times, how will I cope without them?’ or ‘being a non-smoker is not for me because all my friends smoke and what will I do when they all go for a smoke?’

‘Fear of failure’ and the idea that we may not reach our destination puts us off starting the process in the first place. Fear may stop behaviour change because it can lower our self-esteem and trigger thoughts that suggest that we are not worthy of reaching our goal, so rather not try because that will feel worse.

Remember that what you are going through a lifestyle change, not simply ‘going on a diet’ or ‘just quitting smoking.’ So, start slowly by setting small goals that will help build confidence. By moving forward slowly, but surely and steadily, we can begin to overcome the fear that may show up.