What is Fear?

What’s behind that nightmare feeling I always have where I know I need to scream, but for some reason, I can’t? 

Light here required a shadow there.

-Virginia Woolf

The Pressure To Be Afraid

Mrs. Dror knows that I haven’t done the homework.

She’s my Hebrew teacher, and she terrifies me.

I know she hides storms in her hair, swooping it above her suspiciously exaggerated heart-shaped face and pinning it from both sides in an absurd, voluminous ball. I swear she’s an ocean.

Mrs. Dror is waving at a map, titled in Hebrew ME’EIPHO HAMISHPACHA, or in English, “From Where is the Family?”.  

This week we were told to ask our parents me’eipho hamishpacha and today, we are slapping tiny stickers onto Mrs. Dror’s map, little Jewish crumbs. My classmates glue their identities to the same little area of the map while I hide at my desk and wait to die. When Mrs. Dror asks them what country they are from, most of them reply Poland with a sprinkle of other places I have never heard of.

I have a problem with school. Despite my physical presence in class, I seem to miss everything. I can never remember what we learned or if we learned anything at all. I only have memories of things that didn’t happen, like when Mrs. Dror spit a river under my desk, and I floated home to my mother. 

I don’t just fear Mrs. Dror. It’s also the other students, their parents, the administration. I am afraid of people, and I don’t know why, all I know is that I feel like running and running and running all day.

Mrs. Dror asks me to put my sticker on the map. I stare at her, waiting for her face to conjure an escape for me. Her eyes intensify with something other than a rescue. I take that as my cue to put my sticker in the same area as all the others.

“Which country?” She asks me.

“Poland?” I say.

I stand between my desk and the chalkboard for probably an hour before she says, “SO SIT DOWN ALREADY” and I hop back to my seat.

Once we’ve all placed down our sticks, Mrs. Dror approaches the class. She weaves her fingers together and rests them in her skirt as she sits on the edge of her desk. Now is the time.

She tells us about Hitler and as she speaks, she tornados across the chalkboard, names, dates, questions, until she writes, “NEVER EVER FORGET HITLER.” She turns to us and says, “Ok?”

I have Hitler nightmares. A giant Hitler head from within the darkness, hovering above, chanting Juden Juden Juden. This is the end of my life. 

I thought I was afraid of people but now I know about Hitler. 

In general, the more I learn, the more I fear. My ten year old waking thoughts becomes fixated on the impossibility of life. The effort it takes to live doesn’t seem reasonable especially when so many living people seem to want me dead. That’s what we’re learning everyday in Hebrew school: Jewish people have been at risk for siege since time immemorial. Anxious yet, Rachel? Just wait until you get older and find out that many other nations are under similar-to-worse pressures from their own enemies. In fact, enemies, are everywhere, for most of us.

Inner child moment: AHHHHHH.

My parents and grandparents don’t detect a problem with my state of retreat. I’m horribly shy, tired, sad, but they just think I’m a whiny kid. After all, my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. They interpret my nervous state with indifference.

I didn’t know the term “anxiety”. All I knew was that I was constantly dangling off a cliff in the dark above snapping alligators. And the adults in charge of me knew nothing.

Finding Answers

I have always wanted to know what’s wrong with me.

As a kid, I watched my mother struggle with bipolar disorder. She suffered long bouts of mania which were so scary, they’d chase me further into my death-shell.

Mom was out of control. I will never forget being in the car with her. You haven’t seen road rage until you’ve been in the passenger seat, next to my manic mother, on the 401, dodging every little idiot in the way.

I never wanted to be out of control, but it was inevitable.

Rachel’s First Breakdown

I am fourteen years old, and it’s the second night of Passover. Last night, on the first evening of the holiday, I spilled grape juice. My cousin loudly called me a baby.

I hate being called a baby. My whole family calls me a baby.

As a kid, we were often hosted by my grandparents while my dad was working overseas and my mother was sick. I’d routinely holler for my mom, panicked that she’d never come back. 

Here’s some great advice from a Holocaust survivor that I guess I’m entitled to pass onto my “kids” (which could be all of you or maybe no one): “Don’t Be A Baby.” 

Humiliation isn’t helpful. If you’re being humiliated, feel free to reject your tormentor by walking away and becoming a great person.

On the second night of Passover, my mother is waiting for me in the kitchen. I’m late for dinner because I’ve been sitting on the floor of my bedroom, fully dressed, worrying. It’s awfully hard to get off the floor when you hate yourself. 

I finally descend downstairs and tell my mom that I’m not going to Passover. She starts yelling at me, demanding that I come into the kitchen and “tell me, Why, Why, Why can’t you go. I confront my mother non-verbally, grab the refrigerator door, and I SLAMSLAMSLAMSLAMSLAMSLAM. I HATE EVERYONE I HATE EVERYONE I HATE EVERYONE. 

I’m crying on the ground. My secret is airborne: I hate everyone, and it feels like a refrigerator door is crushing me all the time. I’ve tried to avoid being out of control by hiding, but concealment is an unsustainable strategy, especially in Jewish families. I was bound to lose it. It’s in my genes.

Mom can’t believe how broken I happen to be. 

Learning Why It’s Ok

My mission here, on this blog, and in all my writing, is to trace a reckoning with mental illness. There are explanations for the way we feel. We don’t have to blame ourselves.

I’m researching a book that traces my panic disorder and bipolar disorder back through my Jewish ancestry, and I’d like to use this blog to share my research.

Today we can start with the basics.

What is Fear?

There are many definitions of fear. Future articles on this blog will dive further into various theories on fear, fear circuits, pathologies, and other fascinating research. But, for now, here’s the baseline:

Fear is an emotional state evoked by a threat. (Come back soon for an article on “What Are Emotions?)

Social evolution has sculpted the term “fear” to refer to a set of neurological responses to environmental pressures. 

When you’re “afraid,” you’re coping with a state of stress, which may result in fearful behaviors (screaming, crying, canceling all your credit cards), or it may not, but something is happening internally.

When we’re afraid, the most active part of our brain, the amygdala, instigates a fear response in our body, better known as the “fight or flight response”: The heart beats faster, your blood’s pumping, sweat, panting, and that feeling in your body that isn’t quite a bathroom feeling and isn’t quite a sex feeling, but it’s down there somewhere.

The amygdala is connected to the hippocampus, which is where our memories are stored. Therefore, those of us with fearful memories may have more volatile behavioral reactions to fear (holler at my PTSD friends here). Do certain symbols make you hyperventilate, pass out, suffer nightmares? Well friend, look for those patterns and maybe you can find the answer to your fears.

But What About Those Of Us Who Are Afraid All The Time Even If There Is No Trigger?

In further articles, I will illuminate this question with more research but right now I will gently swivel towards a good friend I call, anxiety.

What is Anxiety and How Does It Compare to Fear?

Anxiety is a response to an unknown, internal generalized fear. Remember when I was a kid and terrified of people? It wasn’t fear. It was a constant state of fear, known as “anxiety”.

In the case of fear, the difference is we’re referring to a feeling that comes as the result of an environmental threat. For example, I’m afraid of the dark, so I sleep with a light on. Anxiety, when left untreated, uses the exact mechanisms of fear: elevated heart rate, sweating, dry mouth, but the danger is unknown, and therefore the feeling cannot easily be alleviated.

The source of anxiety disorder, panic attacks, panic disorders, is complicated. I’ll tackle it in my next article. Please, make sure to subscribe and comment with any questions!

Further Reading

Barrett, L.F. Emotions Are Real. Emotion: 2012, Vol. 12, No. 3, 413– 429

Bennett, Daniel. The Science of Fear. Science Focus: August 2017.

Steimer, Therry. The Biology of Fear And Anxiety Related Behaviours. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2002 Sep; 4(3): 231–249.


One reply to “What is Fear?

  1. I like how you are spreading awareness and dissecting this emotion. I also thought this was good advice: “If you’re being humiliated, feel free to reject your tormentor by walking away and becoming a great person.” Good Stuff.
    I will be back to read more.


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