How to Respond to FEAR By Shannon Moule, Clinical Psychologist

Christina ReynoldsPsychology, Uncategorized

Let’s start by leaning into this emotion, to help you understand it a bit better…..

What is FEAR?

FEAR is a normal and natural feeling we have to address threat in our environment. FEAR helps us automatically organise a response to that threat. FEAR motivates us to survive It helps us attend to the threat and it directs our thinking and reasoning on focus on that threat.  FEAR leads to physiological arousal (e.g., increased heart rate, shallow and rapid breathing, sweating, muscle tension, etc) to prepare us to fight or flee the threatening situation. FEAR is experienced automatically through the processing of external (our senses) and internal (thoughts, memories) threatening stimuli.

Now this is all well and good, particularly for our ancestors who would have been faced with lots of external threats on a daily basis that could kill them (e.g., lions, bears, tigers, etc.)  but the threats we often face today come from our own thoughts and/or memories and our minds can’t distinguish the difference.


What you need to know about your mind

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) creator and clinician, Paul Gilbert explains that we have an old and new brain. Our old, emotional brains are designed to help us identify and respond to threats by either fighting or fleeing to ensure our survival—just like they did for our ancestors who lived in a world with lots of external threats. The new brain, which evolved later, is involved in self-awareness, symbolic thought, problem solving, and other higher-order cognitive processes. This new brain has the ability to be aware, self-evaluate, assume, predict and so forth—it can create a threat that doesn’t currently exist (e.g. our new brain can predict we are going to fail at something we haven’t even tried yet). Our poor old, emotional brains are not really good at distinguishing our new brains higher-end thoughts and fantasies from actual stimuli coming in from the external world so it reacts in the same was as if a bear or tiger were here. Gilbert explains, “The old brain is powerful but not very clever”.

Now none of this is your fault. This is just how the brain works. However, what you say and do when you notice FEAR, is your responsibility.


How to tame FEAR

Mary Poffenroth, Fearologist (biologist who studies FEAR) has developed the R.I.A response to tame FEAR.

Step 1. R – Recognise

Is the FEAR I’m experiencing FACTIONAL —life threatening in the here and now or FICTIONAL —none life-threatening?  If it’s fictional FEAR let yourself know you are safe, your life is not at jeopardy (remember your old, emotional brain doesn’t realise this so what you say and do is going to help settle your old brain).

Step 2. I – Identify

Is the fictional FEAR a fear of loss of control and/or of not being good enough? Most of our FEARS can be placed in both or at least one or the other. In this step it’s important to simply acknowledge it. There is no need to judge your FEAR or push it away, but see it, recognise it for what it is – a feeling – nothing more and nothing less.

Step 3. A – Action

Now that you recognise and identify your experience you are ready to take action. Here it is about doing what helps soothe you. Imagine you see a frightened child or animal, how do you respond to it’s FEAR? Usually we do something to soothe/comfort it. We may offer supportive words (e.g. “things will be okay”), we may listen to their problem, we may offer to hang out with them until they feel better, etc.


What we are aiming to do here is to tame the old, emotional brain who is not too wise and is reacting in a way as if a factional FEAR was present. And we can’t rely on the new brain because FEAR organises our thinking and reasoning onto the fictional FEAR itself, further triggering the old, emotional brain. We need to take action. Here are some options for you to consider:


  1. Soothing-rhythmic breathing exercises (see my previous blog on CFT for this exercise
  2. Listening to music
  3. Getting outside in nature
  4. Talking with a trusted, supportive friend who is caring and empathic to your experiences
  5. Relaxation imagery (e.g., picturing a place in your mind that brings you comfort e.g. the beach)
  6. Cup of herbal tea
  7. Soothing self-talk (e.g., it’s hard right now, but I will be okay)
  8. Focusing on the present – fictional fears don’t exist in the present. Fully engage in the activity you are currently doing (e.g., if you are shopping, resume shopping ,reading labels, comparing prices, asking questions, etc);
  9. Using self-talk to help you arrive in the present by asking yourself to name 5 things you can see, hear, touch, taste or smell.
  10. Work with your body by noticing parts of your body that are tense in the here and now by first tensing them and then relaxing as you breathe in and out.
  11. Movement/Exercise to burn off the adrenaline released by the body to fight the threat.


There you have it, to tame your FEAR think R.I.A.


Good luck! And if you need support in taming your FEAR don’t hesitate to contact our friendly reception staff to book an appointment to see me or any one of our practitioners on 3822 9983.



Reference List


Gilbert, Paul (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: The CBT Distinctive Features Series. London: Routledge.


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