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The Mastery of Emotion: Fear

The Mastery of Emotion: Fear

A sudden loud noise that makes us jump, a swift movement in the corner of your eye that raises the hair on the back of our neck, or a moment of sheer dread when our heart rises into our throat and our stomach plummets. The universal experience of fear that serves a very distinct purpose: our basic survival. Yet the irony of this emotion is that we are often only aware of its presence after we have returned to a state of calm and reflect on our experience. We all experience fear, however, are we truly aware of its varying forms, states, and intensities? What does the emotion of fear mean to our sense of safety or personal well-being, and what can we do to manage fear that may seem unfounded and when it doesn’t serve us?


Fear is described as an intuitive and instinctive emotion that leads to adaptive physiological, cognitive and behavioral responses to either a real or perceived threat. Animal behaviorists (ethologists) define fear as a motivational state aroused by specific stimuli that give rise to defensive behavior or escape. Across human evolution, fear has allowed us to survive in the most adverse of conditions; for example, a wooly mammoth charging towards us, or a natural disaster such as flood waters or an earthquake. We can experience fear in a wide variety of intensities including trepidation, nervousness, anxiety, dread, desperation, panic, horror and terror.

Fear can also occur as either innate (natural) or learned (constructed). The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises are viewed as the only innate or natural fears that we are actually born with. We observe babies automatically reacting to the potential of either of these scenarios from the second they are born. In comparison, learned fear is established and reinforced throughout our childhood development as a result of relational, environmental and cultural influences. For example, we are not born with an innate fear of spiders or sharks. This fear occurs because we are taught to respond as a result of the association between a potential threat or cue (a spider) and a fear outcome (being bit and risk of falling ill). Depending on what and how we learn, a potential threat can be very real, anticipated or sometimes even imagined.


Fear serves as both physical and psychological information for us to determine an appropriate survival response. In other words, it is the psychobiological reaction to a given threat, that occurs automatically. This information has the ability to activate our body to respond even before we are cognitively aware of what’s occurring. It allows us to perceive a potential threat, regardless of whether we are aware or even familiar with the circumstance, by connecting our innate or learnt associations as a conductor on how to respond. For example, if we find ourselves in an unfamiliar setting or environment, we might experience trepidation or even nervousness, resulting in us proceeding cautiously or with hyper-vigilance.


How we experience fear is directly related to the nature of a threat. The nature of fear is a complex beast, often referred to as either real fear (an actual threat to physical harm) or psychological fear. Real fear triggers a series of physiological, neurological and psychological responses that result in the classic fight, freeze or flight behaviors. Psychological fear incorporates elements far more involved that our basic instincts. As described, we are conditioned to prepare for a fear outcome, which in some situations leads to the act of anticipation. The tricky part is, anticipation does not denote the existence of a real threat. This is when we describe the terms of rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate fear. It is a subjective expectation of an experience that may or may not occur, however, we are constantly initiating a fear response, there is an increased possibility of chronic physical, neurological and psychological problems.

According to contemporary theory; there are five tenants of fear:

  1. Fear of extinction: also referred to as the fear of death, annihilation or of ceasing to exist. The idea of no longer existing or being provokes an existential anxiety for most individuals. Some may experience this fear when faced with heights, or expansive spaces or other cues that stir feelings of our mortality.
  2. Fear of injury or mutilation: defined by the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function.
  3. Fear of loss of autonomy: the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships in the form of losing one’s self.
  4. Fear of separation or aloneness: this relates to an association of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness with others; of becoming a non-person, someone who is wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. Anyone who has experienced being shunned or rejected by a group or tribe may experience a significant, adverse psychological reaction.
  5. Fear of ego-death: a fancy way to describe humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.


Similar to the various physiological, neurological and psychological responses experienced when we experience anger, our brain triggers the all too familiar fight or flight response. When we experience fear, two key parts of our brain are activated. The first part to fire up is the ‘amygdala’. The amygdala is the neurological center or sensory system for coordinating behavioral, autonomic and endocrine (hormone) responses to external stimuli (visual, sound and smell cues). Within milliseconds of the amygdala activating, the following physiological actions occur:

  • Increase of heart rate and blood pressure;
  • Pupils dilate to increase sight and input of light;
  • Blood is redirected to major muscle groups;
  • Blood-glucose level increases;
  • Muscles tense, adrenaline and glucose level increase;
  • Lungs increase oxygen intake;
  • Non-essential systems (digestion and immune system) shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions;

Another key player is the higher cortical center of the brain. This part references cue and memory. It will reference our experiences and knowledge of a potential threat and potentially override the amygdala, allowing us to control our sense of fear.


While we are no longer likely to be threatened by that beastly wooly mammoth, experiencing fear is a normal human emotional response. However, when we experience prolonged real or perceived fear it can become extremely debilitating. Because we typically recognize fear after the fact, managing fear can be difficult. How we care for ourselves, after the experience is imperative. According to DuPont, Dupont, & DuPont (1998), there are a number of options to help reduce the impact of a fear experience. The objective is to condition ourselves to identify and quantify a fear trigger or cue to reducing its impact. Here are some suggestions;

It doesn't matter why you're scared. Knowing why you've developed a particular fear doesn't do much to help you overcome it, and it delays your progress in areas that will actually help you become less afraid. Stop trying to figure it out.

  1. Learn about the thing you fear. Uncertainty is a huge component of fear: Developing an understanding of what you're afraid of goes a long way toward erasing that fear.
  2. Train. If there's something you're afraid to try because it seems scary or difficult, start small and work in steps. Slowly building familiarity with a scary subject makes it more manageable.
  3. Find someone who is not afraid. If there's something you're afraid of, find someone who is not afraid of that thing and spend time with that person. Take them along when you try to conquer your fear.
  4. Talk about it – more than once. Sharing your fears out loud can reduce the scale of the experience.
  5. Play mind games with yourself. If you're afraid of speaking in front of groups, it's probably because you think the audience is going to judge you. Try imagining the audience members naked, being the only clothed person in the room puts you in the position of judgment.
  6. Reduce reflecting on the grand scheme. Reflect on small, successive steps. If you're afraid of heights, don't think about being on the fortieth floor of a building. Just think about getting your foot in the lobby.
  7. Seek help. Fear is not a simple emotion. If you're having trouble overcoming your fear on your own, find a professional to help you. There are lots of professional treatment options available and it’s possible to overcome fears with the guidance of someone with training and experience.

Fear is the most primary of human emotions. It has served to protect us since the dawn of time and it can be both incredibly intense and profound. We often experience fear in a plethora of emotional experiences, such as fear of isolation, shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc. When we explore and acknowledge our fears, it is possible to reduce the impact that it can create. Fear can occur as either real or rational, or perceived or irrational.

We all experience fear in some capacity or form, almost daily. Regardless of what type of fear you may experience or struggle with, there is a wide range of practical strategies to lessen its impact. Fear serves a purpose, however, not at the expense of your mental and physical well-being and your relationships.

If you would like to learn more about the experience of fear or if you recognize that it adversely impacts your life then call me on 512-470-6976 to start a conversation.

Cheers, Simon

Simon Niblock, MA is an Austin TX based, Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping men, couples and families find peace, direction, and meaning in their relationships. Click on the button below to book a consultation.


Image courtesy of Stefan Rheone (2016) on Flicker

Albrecht, K (2012) The (Only) 5 Fears We All Share.

DuPont, Caroline M., DuPont, Robert L., DuPont Spencer, Elizabeth. "The Anxious Brain." The Anxiety Cure: An Eight-Step Program for Getting Well. Wiley, 1998. ISBN 0471247014.

Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. (1960). The visual cliff. Scientific American, 202, 67–

Kounang, N (2015), What is the science behind fear?

Sarhan, A (2013) Fear & Greed Intro and eight practical tips to deal with fear.

Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.

The Mastery of Emotion: Anger

The Mastery of Emotion: Anger

We’ve all experienced it. That bubbling up of frustration when something consistently doesn’t go according to plan, the sheer exasperation of the person cutting in front of you in traffic or the argument that goes around in circles, becoming increasingly heated by the second. We’ve all experienced anger in its varying forms. We’re often aware we have our own ‘hot buttons’ and pretty sure that everyone else knows how to push them. But how much do we really know about anger and what purpose it serves?

What is Anger?

Anger is the disruption or interference of personal expectations. It is a core human emotion, which varies from person to person in strength and frequency. It is experienced in a variety of states and intensity ranging from simple annoyance to frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, and fury (intense anger).

What purpose does anger serve?

Anger as an emotion, according to evolutionary psychologists, formed as individual response to interpersonal conflicts of interest and as a method to bargain and satisfy such interests. However, anger is far more than a cave man’s negotiation tactic. Experiencing anger allows us to identify when our needs or expectations are not being met. It highlights when our personal boundaries have been breached and can create an intention of purpose or action to overcome the deficit in what we want for ourselves.

Anger, like any of our core emotions, is impossible to eradicate from our emotional repertoire, therefore it should be acknowledged, respected and managed in a way that allows us to evolve personally and improve the quality of our relationships.

How do we become angry?

How we become angry depends on a number of elements. These elements include an event or circumstance that triggers an emotional response (triggers), who we are as a person, or our own individual disposition (emotional characteristics) and how we perceive  the situation (cognitive appraisal) and on what evidence we adopt and our method of reasoning.

A trigger may be an interference with our ability to move forward with an intended task or action, it may include rejection or criticism from someone we love, experiencing inefficiency or bureaucracy, encountering opposite beliefs, being belittled or humiliated by an employer or authority figure or worse case, being wrongfully accused.

Our own individual disposition includes the dominant qualities or temperament of our mental and emotional self. Are we sunny and cheerful by disposition or are we more cynical or irritable in nature? Our emotional outlook or attitude has the ability to create the foundation in which we respond in a given situation.

Cognitive appraisal is our own, individual interpretation of a situation. When a trigger occurs, we instantly make an intuitive evaluation of whether the situation or event is considered a disruption or interference of our personal expectations. In this process, we reference beliefs, values, expectations, hopes and needs. Essentially, we incorporate a whole range of evaluative constructions that allow us to create our own inference or perception of a given situation.

What happens to us when we get angry?

Without going into great depth into the various physiological, neurological and psychological responses, the simple explanation of what we experience when we get angry can be described as an ‘amygdala override’. The amygdala is the neurological center for coordinating behavioral, autonomic and endocrine (hormone) responses to external stimuli, especially those with emotional content. The amygdala responds to a variety of emotional stimuli, but mostly those related to fear and anxiety (Swenson, 2006).

When a threat is perceived, the amygdala bypasses the sections of the brain (the cortex) that typically provides logic, reasoning, and judgment, and switches on a mass dump of hormones. This dump subsequently activates the secretion of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into the body. Essentially, the ‘amygdala override’ activates our flight or fight sequence that we’re all too familiar with and we find we’re flying off into a fit of rage.

How can we manage our anger?

It’s important to recognize that it’s ok to get angry. What’s not ok, is if anger leads to aggression and/or violence. When you are angry, it is our responsibility to express anger in a healthy and constructive manner. We are individually accountable for finding constructive ways to avoid losing control that could lead to aggressive, destructive or other maladaptive behaviors that may harm yourself and others.

1.     Take notice of your ability to calm down: How long does it take? 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or a good couple of hours? The various hormones that flood the body take to secrete out of our bloodstream, so the timeframe in which we need to regulate ourselves can vary from person to person.

2.     Take time out: yes, just like we do with our kids, the same strategy applies really well for angry adults. It’s important to take into account that your mental and physical tolerance may be impacted after an experience of activation, so do not re-enter a heated conversation if you’re still calming down. Remove yourself from the environment if you suspect you might be ‘re-activated’.

3.     Adopt a method of self-soothing: Ask yourself, do you release your anger out, or do you harbor it in? Explore ways to be able to find to calm and regulate your anger. What are your triggers? How does your temperament influence your anger? Are there different ways of assessing particular experiences? What resources can you utilize to positively shape your response?

4.     Practical tools: there are a wide range of tools and options to help ease the internal dialogue and physiological responce that swells up in the heat of the moment. Here’s an example of a series of internal dialogue points developed by the Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015), worth saying to yourself when the anger starts to heighten:

  • I do not need to prove myself in this situation, I can stay calm.
  • As long as I keep my cool, I am in control of myself.
  • What other people might say is their own opinion. Opinions are not facts. I am the only person who can make myself angry or keep myself calm.
  • I will allow myself to take time-out to de-escalate, if I feel that I am getting worked up or recognize my anger cues or signals.
  • In difficult or stressful situations, I do not need to feel threatened or fearful. I can relax and stay cool. This will allow me to make better choices.
  • I do not have to be strong and competent all the time. It is okay to feel unsure or confused at times. This will not make me less of a person.
  • It is impossible to control other persons and all situations. I can only influence these in a positive way if I choose to if they are open to the process.

Anger is a complex creature. As humans, we are naturally predisposed to the emotion of anger and poignant experience. Our perception of anger can vary. Some individuals avoid anger at all cost, while others express it explicitly. Anger, like each of our respective emotions, serves the distinct purpose of highlighting when we are presented with an impediment to satisfying an expectation or need, or if we are faced with a breach of personal values or boundaries. The psychological and physiological effects of anger are complicated, however, if we are aware of the dynamics that create anger we are able to manage and control this important emotion without resorting to ineffective actions that compromise the relationship with ourselves and the relationships with others.

If you would like to learn more about how to positively express your anger or have been told that you have an 'anger problem', then call me on 512-470-6976 to start a conversation.

Cheers, Simon

Simon Niblock, MA is an Austin TX based, Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping men, couples and families find peace, direction, and meaning in their relationships. Click on the button below to book a consultation.


Image by Luis Marina n Flickr (2016) Grrr

Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015)

Center for Evolutionary Psychology (2016).

Ekman, P., & Ekman, E. (2016) The Ekman Atlas of Emotions.

Martin, R. (2011). Why we get angry. Psychology Today.

Swenson, R.S. (2006) The limbic system. Review of Clinical and Functional Neuroscience, Dartmouth Medical School.

Lost In Translation: The Language of Emotionally Expressing Ourselves.

Lost In Translation: The Language of Emotionally Expressing Ourselves.

Image by  Izzah Zainab  on  Flickr

Image by Izzah Zainab on Flickr

Regardless of who we are, our age, or which part of this big blue planet we come from, most of us have a desire to live having experienced the joy of truly loving and meaningful relationships.

Throughout our lives we invest an enormous amount of time and energy into creating and maintaining connections with others. Over the years, we will create an assortment of relationships in a wide variety of shapes, colors and flavors in order to satisfy our need of feeling connected and secure. Some relationships are constant and inseparable (i.e. our own families) and others are fluid and varied.

However, one universal truth remains; there is no escaping the innate need for safe, secure emotional connection with others. It is an essential part of the human condition. Yet, with this consideration there is one question that always surfaces.

If this innate need is intricately part of our human nature, then why at times do we suffer the irony of hurting or disappointing the ones we love the most?

This paradox occurs when the person we love the most is both a source of love, comfort and safety and during times of conflict, the source of emotional and/or physiological risk. (Gerhart, 2016). In moments of high conflict with the one’s we love, we seek to protect both ourselves and the relationship that we have established. In an attempt to protect ourselves emotionally, we react. When we react, we often become angry, frustrated and in some instances we withdraw altogether in order to avoid feelings of vulnerability.

The challenge with this dynamic is the way in which these emotional defenses are communicated to and received by the person we are trying to connect within those moments of heated exchange. Our real emotions become quickly lost in translation and our relationship takes a hit.

What can we do to navigate this dilemma?

Firstly, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge your experience. Take time to reflect on what’s happening inside of you when faced with a relationship problem. Try to identify the underlying emotions of your response/reaction and how you both interacted with and towards each other in the heat of the moment. Take a few moments to understand the connection between your experience and what you deeply need from your partner, parent, loved-one, etc.

Secondly, identify and communicate the emotions that occur in the immediate moment of your experience. For example, if our partner forgets to fulfil a promise, we communicate our primary emotion of feeling unappreciated as opposed to expressing anger or frustration. If we’re the one who may have forgotten to fulfil a promise, we express our emotions of inadequacy or even shame as opposed to withdrawing or defending our actions.

Exploring and communicating our underlying emotions doesn’t come natural at first. It takes tremendous courage and practice. It requires an agreement to honor and respect each other in expressing the most basic of emotions that occur when things don’t go well within the relationship. 

If the right conditions are created, our emotional needs can be safely expressed in a way that reduces the need to react defensively, thereby improving the quality of our relationships.

Learning how to interpret and communicate your emotional needs successfully can feel like learning another language. Learning this valuable skill increases the potential to translate your needs, hopes and expectations in an authentic and constructive way. It allows you and your loved ones to successfully navigate the toughest of times, while developing strong, loving relationships.

~ Simon

Simon Niblock is an Austin, TX based Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping couples and their families find peace, direction and meaning within their relationships. For information regarding couple and family therapy services, contact Simon on 512-470-6976.

Reference: Gerhart, D (2016). Theory and treatment planning in family therapy. A competency based approach. Engage Learning. Boston, MA.