“One fear to rule them all, one fear to find them, one fear to bring them all and in the black box bind them.” — Tolkein
The structure of the brain dictates that what is known to an individual is interpreted as positive (simply because it is known), even if what is being interpreted is, in actuality, negative. Correspondingly, what is unknown to an individual is inherently appraised as aversive (simply because it is unknown), even if what is being appraised is actually positive. This is the case because “[t]he oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft, 1972). The fear of the unknown (FOTU) is the most fundamental of all human fears, the very basis of all others. The unknown takes various forms such as the dark, strangers and, of course, death and the afterlife; all immediately recognized as iconic symbols of fear.
Despite being commonly conflated in lay terminology, fear and anxiety are not synonymous terms; while the former is “present-orientated and relatively certain,” the latter is “future-orientated and relatively uncertain” (Barlow, 2000). In other words, “fear is usually conceptualized as an adaptive but phasic (transient) state elicited through confrontation with a threatening stimulus, [while] anxiety is a more tonic state related to prediction and preparedness” (Adolphs, 2013). Though fear and anxiety are categorically different, they are closely related experiences as one often accompanies the other. Indeed, fear can be identified as “the basic cognitive process underlying all anxiety disorders” (Clark & Beck, 2010).
Everyone experiences fear and anxiety differently — to different degrees, at different times and for different reasons. The individual’s own unique experience of life, particularly during infancy and childhood, includes varying degrees of “negative interactions with uncertainty” that facilitate “maladaptive responses” to the unknown and uncertainty including “inflated estimates of threat cost improbability, hyper vigilance, division safety learning, behavioural and cognitive avoidance and heightened reactivity” (Grupe & Nitschke, 2013); these responses can be understood as expressing on a spectrum (ie., some individuals are born or become more prone to fear and anxiety than others).
The origin and reasons for fear is a contested subject amongst theorists and specialists; the most recent scientific findings have produced more division rather than any sort of consensus. While some theorists argue that there is “unequivocal and definitive evidence for any fear as unlearned is impossible,” others argue for the possibility of “innate fears,” and still others "explicitly posit at least one category of stimuli, the unknown, as innately facilitating a fear response” (Carleton, 2016).
In clinical psychological terms, FOTU is defined as “an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing” (Carleton, 2016). We fear the unknown, even if what is unknown is potentially beneficial to us, and embrace what we already known, even if what we know is harmful. Accordingly, we favour our old negative patterns and struggle to integrate healthier and more productive ways of being into our routines and perspectives simply because we fear what we do not already know. We cling to what is familiar to us because what is unfamiliar is just harder for the brain to engage with and interpret. The amygdala activates when it encounters novelty, not familiarity, even if what is familiar is unhealthy, destructive or negative in some manner.
How do we overcome this FOTU so that we can willingly explore the unknown as a space that potentially offers an infinite expanse of opportunities in which to grow, evolve and expand ourselves rather than something that must be pushed away or avoided? What if we sought to train ourselves how to experience the sensation of fear (to feel our amygdala begin to tingle, if you will) when we encountered something unknown but engage with it anyway? How do we allow ourselves to get butterflies but learn to still take the leap and try something new? It is because our cage is what we know that spreading our wings beyond its confines feels frightening — but surely free flight among the clouds, in the vast expanse of the open blue sky, offers more opportunity for adventure and fulfillment than our old familiar confines.
We need to train ourselves to feel fear and embrace it, to recognize the sensation of resistance and overcome it, to check ourselves when we begin to push away just because something is different, to learn how to feel afraid and do what needs to be done anyway. We need to develop this skill set because it is part of the toolbox that will allow us to deconstruct our unhealthy patterns, perspectives and tendencies so that we can build new and better ways of being, creating happier and healthier versions of ourselves. We can’t hope to change ourselves for the better if we don’t change and challenge our perspectives, our habits, our ways of interpreting the world. We have to engage with what is different, with what we don’t immediately understand or agree with, if we want to evolve into fuller, more textured versions of ourselves. We must try on uncomfortable ideas and arguments so that we can learn more about ourselves, about what we believe in and what we do not, about who we truly are.
What if we commit to deliberately and consciously putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations and engage with uncomfortable ideas on a regular basis? Of course, I don’t necessarily mean “risking death by hanging out in a dark back alley” kind of uncomfortable, I mean perhaps risking being “offended” by engaging with difficult ideologies or taking a chance trying a new hobby you’ve henceforth been terrified you might be bad at… So what if you are? If we stopped coddling our fragile egos and imposing ridiculous expectations on ourselves, we could potentially become more well rounded versions of ourselves. How can we possibly identify our core principles, know who we truly are, if we don’t challenge our own beliefs?
What if you purposefully shook up your daily routine, just for the sake of it? It is as easy as taking a different route to work, wearing a piece of clothing you normally wouldn’t consider, chatting with someone you’d typically avoid making eye contact with, ordering something different on the menu at your favourite restaurant. What if you set your intention to try one new thing a day? I don’t care if it is a new salad dressing — just something that allows you to broaden your horizons, expand your scope of experiences in this life. I know it is cliche to say, but growth really only takes place outside of your comfort zone. Let yourself feel fear and do it anyway. If you’re feeling afraid or resistant, take a moment to pause and reflect, to ask yourself why you’re feeling that way instead of immediately reacting with rejection or avoidance.
Your yoga practice is the perfect space in which to safely explore feelings of fear and resistance. Your time on your mat can provide an opportunity to practice overcoming fear, moving beyond its illusionary boundaries and learning how to welcome the unknown. For example, you can try new styles of practice, take classes with different teachers, visit different studio spaces, explore different variations of poses, put your mat in a different place than usual, shake up familiar poses by emphasizing slightly different points of alignment, consider why you have typically avoided certain poses, etc. (Hint: DIFFERENT!) Depending where you are in the journey of your practice, inversions like Handstand and Forearm Stand (or their preparations) are great places to literally turn your world upside down and overcome feelings of fear. Backbends like Camel Pose offer a space in which to open the heart centre and safely experience vulnerability, a sensation many of us interpret as incredibly frightening. Arm balancing poses like Crane Pose can teach you how to trust your own strength and sense of balance, metaphorically overcoming your fear of spreading your wings and learning to fly. The opportunities to grow and evolve are endless; it really comes down to how brave, curious and open minded you are willing to become.
Bottomline: what is familiar isn’t always positive and what is different isn’t necessarily wrong.
Adolphs, Ralph (2013). The Biology of Fear. Current Biology, 23, 79-93.
Barlow, D. H. (2000). Unraveling the mysteries of anxiety and its disorders from the perspective of emotion theory. American Psychologist, 55, 1247–1263.
Carleton, R. N. (2016). Into the Unknown: a review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 39, 30–43.
Carleton, R. N. (2016). Fear of the Unknown: One fear to rule them all?. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 41, 5–21.
Clark, D. A., & Beck, A. T. (2010). Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: science and practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14, 488–501.
Lovecraft, H.P. (1972). Cthulhu Mythos.