Fear, the Autonomic Nervous System & the narrowing of our Range of Behaviour

Fear versus anxiety

Aside from the negative impact of unprocessed hurt from abuse I already mentioned, there is another detrimental factor to uncompleted past pain that I want to write about.
That is, the underlying sense of threat a person experiences of the idea that ‘something fucked up might happen again’ and the anxious hyper vigilance that accompanies the fact that it might happen at any time.
There is a difference between fear and anxiety: the first is an in-the-moment response to dangerous stimuli, whereas anxiety is more anticipatory and mind-based. Anxiety is more of longer-term low-level state of what I expect to happen (or what might happen), whereas fear is more acute and is (object-)focused on AN ACTUAL REAL WORLD stimulus. Fear is the functional response when a tiger leaps out from behind a bush, while anxiety is prolonged state of being afraid that someone or something might hurt me again in the indefinite future. According to Robert Sapolsky (2004), fear and anxiety trigger the same kind of system in our bodies, namely the:

Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is a system that regulates two types of activity our body can be in. These two types or modes of activity are called Sympathetic and Parasympathetic activity. When an animal encounters a threatening situation, his fight-or-flight response (also referred to as the Stress Response) is triggered. During such a Stress Response, the ANS up-regulates Sympathetic activity and the pre-dominant emotion that the animal experiences is fear. It’s how you feel when you’re being chased by a bear or another dangerous animal. During that time, the ANS and Sympathetic activity raise epinephrine (adrenaline), glucocorticoids, heart beat and blood pressure. This enables you to have more energy available for your muscles, which increases your chances of saving your Life in life-or-death situations. Furthermore, digestion, growth and repair processes are slowed down in the body, along with the production of sex hormones. Basically, the body is channelling all its resources to ensure short-term survival and slows down long-term processes that are less important than survival.

Parasympathetic activity of the ANS does exactly the opposite. The moment you’re safe again, the body starts focusing on recovering from the sudden sprint away from that dangerous animal and parasympathetic activity is up-regulated. The stress response is very taxing as it involves elevated levels of blood glucose and elevated blood pressure. These are stressful and potentially damaging to your arteries, heart and blood vessels. Robert Sapolsky (2004) talks about these types of damaging effects that frequent triggering of the Stress Response can have (these include: cardiovascular damage, ulcers, growth dysfunction, sleep, sexual malfunctioning, depression, diabetes and more).
If we want to stay healthy, it is important that we allow for substantial amounts of rest and healing (parasympathetic activity) after our stress response has been triggered. In other words, we need a healthy balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity in our ANS. We need a healthy balance of positive stress and rest and renewal. This idea ties in perfectly with our need to be in our safe haven where everything is predictable and our need for exploration, growth and adventure.

A main idea put forth in Sapolsky’s (2004) book (‘Why Zebra’s don’t get ulcers’) is that the Stress Response can work differently for human beings, as compared with an animal like a zebra. Human beings are capable of thinking and imagination, because they have a (prefrontal) cortex capable of such brain functions. Animals like a zebra have less evolved brains and do not possess these brain functions. With these higher brain functions, humans are capable of imagining something fearful.
This is what I referred to earlier when I wrote about:
the underlying sense of threat a person experiences of the idea that ‘something fucked up might happen again’ and the anxious hyper vigilance that accompanies the fact that it might happen at any time.
Humans can trigger their Stress Response simply by thinking about something. Zebras can’t do this, and because of this, never have any anxiety disorders.

In humans, problems with anxiety arise when past trauma/abuse is not processed and completed. When I have a traumatic experience and I don’t find some way to deal with it and bring consolidation to the event, I will have a sense that I won’t be able to cope with such a situation if it happens again. I will become anxious about the past traumatic event, phobic towards situations similar to the past event and will find myself wanting to minimize the chances that such a thing ever happens again to me.
In the case of completion, past hurts will be processed and we find a way to grow from a negative experience. In that case, there will be no lingering anxiety over the past abuse/traumatic event.

Narrowing attention & action repertoire

Given the detrimental effects of long-term stress on the body, fear is commonly referred to as a negative emotion. As was established in the previous segments, fear is not bad thing as long as it is a short-term adaptive response, but it becomes negative when the Stress Response gets triggered too often and for too long. In other words, the emotion of fear is a good thing when it helps me get out of danger, but becomes negative when it is triggered for prolonged periods of time.

When we are in fear we tend to behave more predictably (we resort to very basic behaviours aimed at securing our survival, like fight or flight). Fredrickson (2001) suggests that negative emotions all have the tendency to narrow our thought and action repertoires so that we will behave in a very rigid way. Goleman (1985) says that the same thing happens to our focus of attention, it narrows and hones in on the object that needs to be dealt with. This object is usually the trigger that is perceived to be the stimulus that elicited the negative emotion in the first place. These behavioural responses (of narrowed attention and action repertoire) are all very desirable when dealing with an immediate threat, but are highly undesirable when they influence behaviour on a consistent basis while we are engaged in other activities in Life.

Fredrickson (2001) suggests that being in a state of positive emotionality (like joy, interest, contentment and love) broadens up our thought and action repertoire and facilitates creative breakthroughs and effectiveness. This enables us to create value for ourselves and others and also gather more resources in all areas of Life.
The challenge is, when I have lingering negative emotions that are unprocessed, my capacity for positive emotionality is inhibited. Furthermore; being in a perpetual state of negative emotionality steers my behaviours towards ensuring survival (avoiding and minimizing risk and danger). Designing and going after the Life I want are always secondary to survival. The ironic thing is that in today’s society it is pretty unlikely that you will not survive, yet people walk around anxious about it. This is mostly all post-traumatic stress as a result of not having processed thru past hurt. A narrow action repertoire means that I will be behaving VERY predictably, as all my actions are geared at ensuring survival. When someone is angry at me, I get aggressive right back at them. In terms of possessions and finance, I act greedy, I want to get the best end of the deal. When I enter a discussion, I have to be right. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I yell at them. When someone challenges my beliefs, I get argumentative. When someone tries to offend me, I take it personal. When injustice is done, I get righteous and have to get even.
The list of predictable behaviours goes on….

When people are operating with a narrow action repertoire, you can predict their behaviours so easily. It’s like you push a button and they go into a predictable negative reactive mode. These types of defensive reactions are not functional and they rarely improve the situation I’m in. It reinforces a social context in which I’m out to protect myself and in which other people become a potential enemy that I have to compete with for resources.

Cutting of certain parts of self

Earlier, I wrote about the tendency to dissociate from how I feel after I have been hurt. In this sense, I might cut my attention of off emotional aspects of my experience. If every time I express myself in some way, someone punishes me for it, it is a normal coping response to stop expressing myself in that way.

A child can learn easily to stop expressing certain parts of himself when a parent/caretaker punishes (or ignores) him for doing so.
In this way, the child learns what it means to be a good boy or girl, by only doing what mommy and daddy approve of and stop doing what mommy and daddy disprove of. The child learns what appropriate behaviour is (and what isn’t) by the feedback that parents and caretakers give him. The problem arises when parents and caretakers disprove of healthy natural behaviours. Bradshaw (1988) calls this shaming and according to him, dysfunction will set in when families shame healthy, natural behaviours of a child. When this happens habitually, a child might only take sides with certain parts of himself and not with others. As a consequence, the behavioural repertoire of the individual becomes impaired as some aspects of self are clearly ‘off limits’ for him. Commonly shamed natural aspects of healthy natural self-expression include: anger, sexuality, joy, crying, vulnerability, intimacy, aggression, scepticism, etc.
Shaming healthy natural aspects of the self is another form of abuse and needs to be acknowledged and completed to be transcended. After processing thru this type of abuse I can then learn that all natural aspects of myself are okay and that it is all right to express myself in those ways.

The next book piece drops at Friday January 20th and concludes Part II with a summation, plus covering the capacity for challenge that we have as human beings

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One Response to Fear, the Autonomic Nervous System & the narrowing of our Range of Behaviour

  1. Pingback: Pain & Hurt | identityisdynamic

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