Bob Van Oosterhout

Fear-Based Thinking

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Fear and clear thinking are like oil and water.  They don’t mix.  One will push the other away.  Fear-Based Thinking is what happens to our mind and brain when repeatedly exposed to experiences or messages that trigger fear.  One problem with Fear-Based Thinking is that it stops us from asking questions. 

Questions are the key to understanding.  There can be no freedom or progress without questions.  Good questions start with curiosity and wonder.  We aren’t curious when dwelling on past tragedies and future danger.  We go back and forth from reacting to what did go wrong to worrying about what might go wrong without stopping to wonder what’s really going on. 

We cling to any hint of certainty that brings a sense of security and charge forward in the unquestioned belief that we are “right.”  Since we never stop to consider alternatives, we see the option we are following as “the only choice.”  We become stuck in what we think we know.

Fear Can Lock Us Up
I worked with a man who had been in seclusion for 30 years. I’ll call him John.  John had been held in a straightjacket almost continually for three years because every time he had human contact, he came out fighting.  No one knew if he was mentally impaired, schizophrenic, or even if he understood language  because he attacked everyone who approached him. John was brought for an evaluation at the residential facility where I was working. I was asked to consult because I had experience calming people who had problems with violence.

John was small and wiry.  He was about 5' 6" and didn’t weigh much over 120 lbs.  The director assigned four of the biggest, strongest Resident Attendants to escort him into the building and John put out three windows with his feet on the way to his room.

I spent an hour preparing to meet John to insure that I was well-grounded and in optimum physical, mental, and emotional balance.  I opened the door of his room and stood in a non-threatening stance.  John was pacing back and forth at the other end of the room and I tried to get a sense of what it might feel like to be in his skin. I introduced myself and explained why I was there.  He continued pacing and ignored me.

John had an extreme amount of tension in his shoulders, neck and forehead.  I guessed that he must have a pretty bad headache.  I told him that I had some experience in working with tension and that sometimes I could help people get rid of headaches.  I suggested he sit on the end of his bed and I would see what I could do.   He sat down.  This was the first indication that John understood language.  I tried to relax his neck and shoulders but it had no effect so I sat next to him and talked for a while.  John never acknowledged or looked at me and when I ran out of things to say, I got up and left. 

There was a big crowd of people who had been looking through the small window in the door The nurse who had admitted him was saying “This never happens.  He always attacks!”  There was a new staff person in the crowd, a young man I hadn’t seen before.  He said “That’s nothing” and walked in, sat next to John, talked to him, and was not attacked. 

This young man described precisely what worked: nothing.  For 30 years every person who tried to make contact with John was expecting a fight. He gave it to them, usually more than they could handle. Then, twice in one day, John meets two guys who are not expecting to fight and he doesn’t attack.

Fear-Based Thinking kept John locked up for 30 years. The attendants assumed he would attack without asking questions about how he was feeling or what he might need at the moment.  Their attempts to control him triggered his fear and his reaction intensified and solidified their Fear-Based Thinking. 

Fear-based Thinking can lock us up and keep us there.  We don't listen or seek to understand when we are in the grips of Fear-Based Thinking.  We don't consider history, context or implications.  We don't even stop and think about whether the action we are taking makes sense.  We are driven to act without thinking about what’s really happening or how we can effectively deal with it.

What is Fear-Based Thinking?
Fear-Based Thinking is how our mind works when we’re in a state of fear.  It is also a mental habit that persists long after the immediate threat has passed.  It narrows our focus, restricts learning, blocks compassion and creativity, and makes us more self-centered, impatient, and judgmental.  It makes us vulnerable to manipulation and interferes with problem solving while leading us to form rigid, emotionally based opinions that are immune to input and logic. 

Fear puts body and mind in crisis mode and prepares us to run, fight or freeze. Everything not essential for survival shuts down so all our energy can be used to deal with what we perceive as an immediate threat.  Crisis mode is like being chased by a bear. We don’t stop and think about where we’re going. We don’t pay attention to what we might be stepping on or in. We don’t pause to assess the best course of action. We just get the hell out of there.

We don’t reach out or try to understand other people when we’re in crisis mode. We don’t listen or learn. There is no time for creativity or new ways of seeing things. Our mind is pulled to simple, quick solutions and what seemed to work before, even when that is the worst possible thing we could do.

Fear-Based Thinking develops and deepens when we receive repeated messages that stimulate fear.  Since fear gets and keeps our attention, it’s a useful tool for the media and entertainment industries.  Fear is also a highly effective political tactic.  It is easy to manipulate voters when fear keeps us from taking time to understand issues, question assumptions, or look beyond talking points and spin. When we’re in the grip of Fear-Based Thinking we tend to look for a strong leader to keep us safe without questioning whether he or she has our best interests at heart.  Fear-Based Thinking leads us to process information in Dead End Categories of either/or, right/wrong, and good/evil.  We reject all immigrants, all liberals, all republicans, all people who are different or disagree with us.  This creates dependable voting patterns but leads to a break-down of communication and cooperation.

How Does It Work?
Fear-Based Thinking builds when we think about fear. Although the effects on our body and mind are similar, there is a big difference between fear that comes from present danger (Natural Fear) and fear that comes from thinking about danger (Mental Fear). 

Natural Fear is a reaction to the perception of an immediate threat.  Natural Fear gets our attention and provides energy to run, fight, or freeze in order to maximize our chances of survival. It arises in a moment and dissipates in seconds when our attention shifts to dealing with the threat.  The new attendant and I didn’t feel afraid when we met John because we were focused on understanding what was happening with him.  When I was in Kenya, I saw a wildebeest standing less than 30 yards away from lions who were devouring a carcass.  The wildebeest didn’t seem afraid because the lions had what they wanted and were no longer a threat.

Natural Fear is a rare occurrence for many of us.  There are no immediate threats to safety or well-being in our lives most of the time.  Even in so-called dangerous neighborhoods, violent incidents last only minutes and don’t occur every day.  The primary source of fear is in our own minds.  It is the thought of fear that keeps us afraid.  Mental Fear is a response to thinking about threats, past or future, real or imagined.  Mental Fear focuses on the past and future and lasts as long as we keep dwelling on it.  In contrast, Natural fear is a response to the moment and only lasts until we shift our focus to dealing with the problem at hand.

It’s important to understand how Mental Fear affects our brain. Scientist describe the brain as “plastic” but I believe it’s more accurate to say our brains are forming.  Thoughts, perceptions, and experiences create pathways made up of connections between neurons.  They’re like roads in our brains.  Going back and forth the same way across an empty field eventually creates a path and then a road.  Repeating a certain line of thinking has the same effect in our brain.  When a road is used a lot, it becomes well worn or paved, making it easier to travel on.  When we no longer travel on a particular path, it grows over and disappears in the weeds.

At any given moment, we are either creating new pathways in our brain or reinforcing old ones.   Pathways associated with fear are like highways - they’re easy to get to and allow us to move quickly because they’re related to survival. Messages of fear from the media and politicians pull our thoughts to similar pathways again and again while keeping us from forming new ones.

Being stressed-out, frustrated, exhausted, or emotionally drained pulls us toward thoughts and messages of fear like iron to a magnet.  This further strengthens fear-based pathways. When we fail to access other pathways, those connections start to fade.

As stress increases and Fear-Based Thinking is reinforced, alternative ways of thinking and perceiving disappear. We stop creating new roads and no longer choose paths that expand how and what we think.  Extending the road analogy, circuits in our brain can become like railroad tracks that narrowly limit our thought and perception. We become trapped by our own mind and are no longer free.  The worst part is that we’re not even aware that we have given up freedom when we get stuck in Fear-Based Thinking.  Our way of thinking in response to fear becomes our normal way of thinking about life.

What Can We Do About It?
Getting rid of Fear-Based Thinking doesn’t mean there is no longer anything to be afraid of.  It simply frees up our personal resources so we can take time to understand and evaluate potential risk and danger instead of jumping to old solutions or reacting without thinking.  We focus on how we can effectively deal with the situation instead of dwelling on what might happen.  We transform fear into caution and concern.

Fear narrows our awareness. Caution expands  it.  Fear-Based Thinking pulls our thoughts toward simplistic or old solutions and drives us to act immediately. Concerns have a history and context that demand reflection and understanding.  Fear-Based Thinking drives us to either cower and hide or charge forward with our head down.  Concern leads us to develop and adapt strategies that fit with changing circumstances.  Fear-Based Thinking draws us into making the same mistakes again and again. 

Breaking the cycle of Fear-Based Thinking allows us to see a larger picture and relevant details more clearly.  We can respond rather than react;  learn, adapt, and strategize rather than grab onto what we did before.  Focusing on what’s going on rather than what might happen allows us to foresee obstacles and see opportunities and creative solutions.

Here’s an example:  Let’s say I live in a neighborhood in Chicago where there have been a lot of shootings and I fear for the safety of my child.  Constantly worrying about the possibility she might be hurt can get me stuck in Fear-Based Thinking and keep me frozen in terror, hoping someone will fix the problem. Transforming Fear-Based Thinking into caution and concern allows me to ask questions that help me to understand the nature of the risks and how best to manage them.  Where and when are shootings most likely to occur? Who are the targets and how might they be avoided?   What happens just before a shooting?  Is a slow moving car an indication of increased risk?   I can check maps of Chicago that show precisely where shootings have occurred and figure out ways to avoid these areas at the times when shots have been fired.  I can ask others how to teach my child to be aware of increased risk.  I can talk with neighbors and figure out ways to work together to keep our children safe.  Natural Fear dissipates when we focus on understanding the situation.  Mental Fear doesn’t take hold because my thoughts are focused on how to deal with risks.  When fear does creep into my mind, I can redirect my thinking by asking more questions that can help me manage the situation more effectively.

We can restore freedom and begin to work together to solve problems by becoming aware of Fear-Based Thinking and confronting it.  This involves three simple steps.  The first is to stop the build-up of tension and restore balance.  The second it to recognize Fear-Based Thinking when we see or experience it. The third is to ask questions.

Restoring Balance
Restoring balance is a critical step in bringing clarity to what’s happening because tension feeds Fear-Based Thinking. When we restore balance and redirect Fear-based thinking, mental and emotional resources that can solve the problem come back online. We see through a larger frame. Our emotional filter clears. We can focus on understanding what’s happening and work out and adapt a strategy for figuring out how to deal with it.

We can stop the build up of tension by taking a moment to slow and deepen our breathing and become aware of how and where we’re tensing.  This allows us to thoughtfully respond to situations rather than react as if slapped on sunburn.  Restoring full balance when there has been a consistent build-up of tension can take a few days to a few weeks of regular practice. Learning how to restore and maintain physical, mental, and emotional Balance has been the primary focus of my career in counseling and teaching since 1976.  Over this time I narrowed the process to four techniques that directly address the physiological and psychological changes that take place when we’re in crisis mode.  This is explained in detail in my book “Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension.”  There are links to videos on my website that explain how and why each of these techniques work to restore Balance.  They can be viewed at

Recognizing Fear-Based Thinking
Fear-Based Thinking is stimulated by messages that contain fear.  It is helpful to sort through these messages and determine which ones are relevant to our lives.  We need to be aware that terrorism is a potential threat but constant reminders of violent acts in faraway places reinforces Fear-Based Thinking while doing little to help us effectively deal with risks in our lives.

Indicators of Fear-Based Thinking
Fear-Based Thinking is often the culprit when there is an ongoing need to control others with threats while remaining closed to input and other perspectives. Fear-Based Thinking also creeps into our language and can undermine respect in relationships.  Either/or thinking that sees everything and everyone in terms of right or wrong and good or evil disregards details and distinctions and diminishes our ability to understand what is really going on. 

Words and phrases that stop us from asking questions are good indicators that the source may be stuck in Fear-Based Thinking.  For example, hearing someone say that a particular course of action is “the only choice...” is often a clear example of Fear-Based Thinking.  An honest evaluation would look at a situation from different perspectives and describe the pros and cons of a range of options.

Blame and put-downs are common fear-based tactics that lead us to disregard other’s ideas and opinions.  If an opponent’s argument has no merit, it can be easily exposed with evidence and logic.  Blame and put-downs bypass honest evaluation by putting people and ideas into Dead End Categories that allow us to quickly dismiss them without further thought.  This is a common political tactic

There are a number of words used in political campaigns that promote Fear-Based Thinking.  Examples are decay, failure, crisis, lie, shallow, endanger, radical, threaten, waste, incompetent, permissive, destructive, impose, self-serving, excuses, intolerant, selfish, shame, and disgrace.  These labels are repeatedly applied to opposing candidates and their positions in order to lead us to dismiss them without honestly evaluating their experience or ideas. 

There are a few simple questions can help determine if we are being pulled into Fear-Based Thinking.

How does it make me feel?
One way to identify messages that contribute to Fear-Based Thinking is to look at their effect on our emotions.  Reactions of anger or fear are indications that we may be reinforcing Fear-Based Thinking.  The initial response to reports of violent tragedies is often compassion and a desire to work together to help in some way.  Emotions can turn to anger and fear as messages based on Fear-Based Thinking continue to remind us the event.

What is the effect on how we view others?
Fear-Based Thinking sorts people into those who are with us and those who are against us.  Beliefs are seen as right or wrong, intent as good or evil. Fear-Based Thinking disconnects us from others and leads to isolation and exclusion.  Statements that are dismissive or judgmental often come from Fear-Based Thinking.

Do solutions involve seeking control or power over others?
The desire to gain power over perceived sources of threats is a common response to Fear-Based Thinking.  Seeking power over a threat makes sense on the surface but gaining power over others tends to diminish trust and respect and escalate threats over the long run because those who have lost power will eventually attempt to regain it.  It feeds a cycle of conflict that is never ending. Lasting peace is not found until both sides give up the desire to gain power over the other.

Does the message seem to have a fixed or narrow perspective?
Being unwilling or unable to question assumptions while being absolutely certain about positions or solutions are indications of Fear-Based Thinking.  Pairing broad labels with emotional or dismissive messages is a common tactic when Fear-Based Thinking is used to manipulate public opinion.  Fear-Based Thinking resists viewing things from new perspectives and responds with attack or diversion when challenged.  It bypasses analysis of evidence and sources and ignores history, context and implications.

Is there a consistent pattern?
Fear-Based Thinking is a serious problem when it becomes structured in our brain.  At any given moment any one of us may jump to conclusions or react in a judgmental manner.  There is cause for concern when this becomes our usual response Controlling others with threats and remaining closed to input restricts perception of the larger picture and relevant details while limiting options and creativity. .

Asking Questions
Questions allow us to understand a problem and situation.  They help us explore which options are likely to provide the best solution over the long run, to assess how things are working and adapt as needed.  These are questions that are not asked when we’re caught in the grip of Fear-Based Thinking. 

There are three types of questions that undermine Fear-Based Thinking: Vertical, Horizontal, and Relationship.  Vertical questions look at the basis for a statement by evaluating evidence and sources.  Horizontal questions ask about history, context, implications and other perspectives.  Relationship question look at how our decisions may affect others and evaluate whether the information presented is likely drive us further apart or help us work together.

What’s Next?
Fear-Based Thinking  has grabbed and held human attention while limiting our understanding and focus for the past few thousand years as a result of frequent war and personal abuse.  It is worse now than ever due to mass media and the increasing sophistication of political tacticians.
What might happen if we broke our long-standing habit of Fear-based thinking ?

I planted a six inch dogwood tree in a distant meadow on our property in 1991 and assumed it didn’t survive that summer’s drought.  I was walking in that area in early spring 17 years later when I spotted it. It was almost the same size as when I planted it and still alive.  I carefully dug it up and transplanted it into our garden, which had rich, organic soil and a tall, fine mesh fence to keep out predators. 

My wife asked me “Why are you planting that chewed-up, spindly stick?”  I explained that it was the seedling that I planted all those years ago and that it still had life.

Now that dogwood tree is over eight feet tall.  It's covered with delicate flowers in spring and small white berries through winter.  On a recent Christmas, five pairs of cardinals enjoyed dinner on our dogwood in the garden.

So I ask, “What is the true nature of a dogwood tree?”  Clearly it is to grow tall and be covered with flowers that turn into berries that provide dinner for cardinals and delight for humans.  Becoming a chewed-up spindly stick was simply how the seedling adapted to ongoing threats of deer, rabbits, and drought.  Removing those threats allowed the true nature of the dogwood to emerge.

A respected archeologist recently wrote that there is little evidence of war or hierarchy in the first 95% of human existence.  It is only in the past few thousand years that man-made fear has dominated our consciousness.  It is only in the past few decades that Fear-Based Thinking has become a normal part of daily life. 
How have we adapted to Fear-Based Thinking?

Have we become the human equivalent of a chewed-up, spindly stick?