Fear and the Body

March 17th, 2014



“I too have been shipwrecked many times.”



These were the words used by a psychologist friend and colleague to provide me with some perspective while I was working through a relationship breakup some years ago.


Shipwrecks are associated with disaster and death. To have survived many of them indicates something has been understood about our mind’s relationship with fear and death.


Why does fear have such a paralyzing effect on us? What is the mechanism that does this? How might we overcome our fear? All good questions and, as usual, I am so glad you asked.



“Fear is the mind killer.” [1]


© theawesomer.com

© theawesomer.com


At its most basic level, fear is part of our survival mechanism. It is literally trying to save our life. While these reflexes may be helpful in the wild they are quite paralyzing in ‘civilized’ society where direct, physical threats to our life are relatively rare.



The mechanism of fear


When we are under stress our adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in large amounts very quickly into our blood stream. They enable our flight/fight response and increase things like muscle contraction (often with temporarily increased strength), blood pressure and heart rate.


While that may be useful in an emergency it is harmful to have these hormones at high levels in our body over a more chronic period.


Cortisol, for example, contracts the heart muscle and eventually ages it. A chronic high production of cortisol will exhaust the adrenal gland’s ability to produce it and we ‘burn out’. Burnout is an increasingly common problem in society and incurs a high cost both personally and to the community.



The security software of the mind



If critical threats to our life are not that common why then would we enter these states of stress so regularly?


Because our mind is telling us to.


Like security software in a computer, parts of our mind can be programmed to alert us to potential threats. These threats can then of course be updated and added to at any time. They can include anything we decide is dangerous to us – like certain emotions and reactions, conflicts, memories, people or surroundings.


Our fearful reactions, no matter how arbitrary or illogical to others are just our mind’s security software obeying its instruction to protect us.


In last week’s Conscious Health blog (link here) we mentioned the role of the protective ego and its connection to the first two energy centers or chakras. In this context we can see our security software as a well meaning but perhaps not fully informed attempt to control a perceived threat.


The ego, unfortunately, can work like many security services. By targeting more threats it justifies its own existence which becomes an end in itself and is often not in our best interests.



Emotional cell memory


This is where things get really interesting. The term cell memory is used to describe previous traumas that give rise to currently triggered emotional responses in the physical body – like fear for example.


‘Cell memory’ is perhaps misleading as it is really software memory we are discussing here. After all, most cells are replaced at least once every seven years. If the concept of emotional cell memory was literal we would simply lose the physical triggers to traumas older than that.


In traditional Chinese medicine fear is the emotion associated with the kidney/adrenal system in the body. As an energy system it expresses itself through different body areas and structures:


The feet and ankles

The genitourinary system

The low back and sacrum

Hearing and balance

The bones, teeth and head hair

The central nervous system (CNS)



straight chart



Chronic fear states can weaken these areas and show up as symptoms:


Weak, easily sprained ankles, chronic tightness and pain in the low back, frequent urinary tract infections, reduced sex drive, premature graying/whitening of the hair, dental problems, poor balance, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and general inability to relax and allow ourselves to contact the deeper, protected recesses of our mind (leading to insomnia for example) are all connected to this system.


It is symbolized by the water element in Chinese medicine.



The will of water


At a spiritual level this element symbolizes the will. ‘Water always finds its way.’ goes the saying. In a healthy individual the will and curiosity to investigate life and learn even through mistakes is a natural expression of our strong inner reserves.


Still waters


It engenders us with the confidence and self belief that we can overcome whatever challenges and fears we may face. Like the water element within us we will find a way. Our still waters run deep. We are much stronger than we may know.




A battle of wills


Fear paralyses us by splitting our mind into a battle of wills. Our personal, creative will connected to our Self versus:


  • The security concerns of our controlling and protective ego
  • The collective will for us to conform inside our familial and socio-cultural groups (the so-called ‘super ego’).
  • More abstract, modern survival triggers like trying to align our economic survival with our creative dreams – fear versus joy.


Traumas from the past that magnify our fear responses in the present are often cloaked in fear to prevent us from investigating them. However the person we were then that made such a pact is not the more mature person we are now. Something our younger self may not have been able to cope with then may be healed now.



Repairing our split Self


All fears are ultimately linked to a fear of death. Death is seen as non existence, the end of awareness and consciousness, a separation from the consciousness of the Self.  It is really a concern of the protective ego more than our true Self however.


When we forget our own will we split from our connection to Self and feel threatened and pressured by the will of others. We literally lose ourselves in fear.


The remedy for this is of course to reconnect with our Self. There is a part of us that knows we are never in any real danger, that all fears are illusory because death is illusory.


Whether we remember it or not we have all been shipwrecked many times. The waters of life have washed over us time and again yet here we are. Like water we appear to crash and break up only to reform again in another wave.



“I don’t know how people cope!”


These were the words of a client after a treatment session. She was commenting on the breadth and depth of the inner world she had contacted during the session. To her it seemed amazing just then that anyone could find time for anything in the outside world when there was so much inside to explore.


Inner life


Try to spend a little time every day dipping into the still and calming waters of your inner Self. Practices like meditation, tai chi and chi gong, breathing practices like pranayama and so on all gently guide us inward to that place in us beyond our fear.


They remind us how big our inner life is. Even better, it is the world before and after the shipwreck, beyond fear and into the truth of who we really are.



Till another Monday no longer holds any fear for us,



PS: For those in Stockholm this Monday evening, 17th March 2014, there is a Conscious Health open lecture concerning our relationship to fear, stress and health. For details click here.


[1] From the novel Dune by Frank Herbert. All rights reserved.



© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation: info@jeremyhalpin.com


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