Fear is a survival tactic that is built into our species, it’s a natural response to physical and emotional danger – if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats.

The science of fear

Neuroscience research shows that when the part of the brain that functions as the central command centre for our emotional reactions – the amygdala – senses fear, it presses the body’s panic system and triggers the chemical stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline and releases them into the blood stream. The release of stress hormones increases our breathing, heart rate, and gives us a heightened state of alertness, and makes our thoughts difficult to control.

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Insights in behavioural epigenetics show that our fears come from experiences in our own past AND also from the experience of our ancestors. Each experience leaves molecular scars on our DNA.

Our experiences, and those of our ancestors, are never gone even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioural tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited your grandmother’s predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn or your grandfather’s need to control, because of his strict upbringing.

Research on Holocaust survivors

Researchers at the Mount Sinai Hospital, New York analysed a gene associated with stress hormones, and known to be affected by trauma, in 32 Jewish Holocaust survivors and their children. They compared the results to Jewish families who were living outside Europe during World War Two and found methylation changes in the Holocaust survivors and their children that were not present in the control group.

After ruling out the possibility that the stress indicators in the children’s genes could be caused by their own childhood trauma, the researchers concluded that they had inherited their parents’ epigenetics changes.

“The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Professor Rachel Yehuda, who co-authored the study.

Dealing with fear and how to address it_2

Dealing with fear

So, how do you deal with your fears, whether they are your own, or those passed onto you by your ancestors?

Most of the time, our fears are heightened by a belief that the experience and situation is extremely dangerous, or risky and may harm us or even kill us. But if we consciously look at what is happening, the experiences and situations of many common fears aren’t as threatening as we might think.

Fear is nothing but False Evidence Appearing Real.

So a simple way to change a fear is to reframe it.

Reframing your fear

Firstly ask yourself the question “what’s the worst that could happen from this situation?”

By stepping back and asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” we start to see that even the worse outcome isn’t really that bad, so we might as well act on our fear.

Then we can reframe it:

Reframing is simply shifting the elicited response we have to an external fear, such as a relationship ending. By changing the meaning of that external factor we have the power to change the emotion that it elicits in us.

So if your partner ends a long term relationship, instead of looking at it as a failure, you can look at it as a learning opportunity to spend more time nurturing yourself while you wait for something even better to come into your life.

Finally ask yourself “What could happen?” Turn the fear into curiosity. Curiosity is a very powerful state to be in. Think like a child. Children are curious about everything around them as they explore. They seem to have no fear.

That state of wonder is a powerful antidote to fear.

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