How Fear Can Affect Decision-Making & Interactions with Others

During this “spooky” month of October, it seems appropriate to talk about fear. Specifically, how fear can affect decision-making and/or interactions with others.

To begin, let’s chat a little about brain development. In utero, our brains develop from base to front, inside to outside. After the brain stem (which controls automatic functions like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) the section of our brain that develops next is the limbic system, the place where we experience fear.

The reason this part of our brain develops so early is that it helps keep us alive. However, because it is such a primal function, it doesn’t always do the best job discerning between fighting for our lives, fighting with our roommate/colleague, or fighting over who gets to pick the restaurant. That means whether we are really in danger or just low-key worried, this part of our brain can kick in. Here are some specific ways this plays out as we make decisions and interact with others:

Scarcity: When we experience fear, it moves us into the perception of scarcity. We get tunnel vision about the circumstances, believing we have to fight for what we need because there’s not “enough” of something or a healthy way to get what we need. This can make us more impulsive than usual as we try to resolve this fear and get our needs met.

Inward Focus: When we are in fear mode, we get very self-focused because we are in “protection mode.” This can be tough when we are interacting with others because we are so focused on getting what we need that we can forget about the needs of others. Fear has a way of making us look past the people we normally take into consideration.

Wants Become Needs: Think back to when you were young or when your children were young. Children have little ability to tell the difference between wants and needs because they don’t have the front/outer, rational, part of their brain developed yet. When we are afraid, it activates the part of our brain that dominated our childhood. Yes, even as adults, fear can make us want-what-we-want-when-we-want-it or throw uncharacteristic “tantrums.”

The most important thing to remember is that fear is a really powerful, important emotion. And it doesn’t like to be ignored. So, when we feel it, it is best to deal with it, rather than push it away. Some options for dealing with fear in a healthy way are by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (see a great list of ways to do that here) or simply asking “what am I afraid of?” to activate the higher thinking, more rational part of your brain.

If fear, worry, or anxiety are causing difficulties for you, please contact your university’s wellness center for support managing this important, powerful emotion in healthy, productive ways.

October 19, 2021. By Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo

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