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  • Writer's pictureForesight Mental Health

Get A-Head Series: The Fear Switch

Updated: Apr 3

by Dr. Jerry Gelbart, M.D.

"Updates and Bug Fixes" for Our Brains - Reposted from The Potent Mind

…to be taken aurally, visually, and mindfully.

This is the first installment in my Get A-Head Series, which I created to help you think “outside the box” of your usual mind.

Our computers get “fixes” (“patches,” “updates”) as bugs are discovered or as technology evolves. That process is not so automatic when it comes to our brains. Times have changed a lot since humans first evolved but our brains have changed very little. I’ve studied Psychology for most of the last 35 years, researched psychotherapies at UCLA and Stanford, and worked as a Psychiatrist prescribing medications and doing psychotherapy individually and in groups for the last 20 years. I’ve learned that the natural “programming” of the brain can cause problems for any of us in modern society. The best example of this is a “bug” that causes stress, which is very easy to reduce when you understand how the brain works. When you incorporate these “fixes” into your mind you will see improvement in self-doubt, self-esteem, anxiety, eating and weight problems, avoidance, procrastination, insomnia, anger and relationship problems .

I hope you will follow the entire series with me. Each installment will provide a brief background, and end with specific “patches” which you should digest into your mind. Remember that while these patches make perfect sense in themselves, simply hearing or reading them will not incorporate them permanently into your operating system. The best way to do that is to learn and practice Mindfulness, which teaches how to be in the present and to separate from the judging and assumptions that cloud our effectiveness. I have provided resources in the bibliography at my blog. I also recommend journaling and discussing these “patches” with friends.

The Fear Switch

Our brain comes with a fear switch. It’s very primitive, and it evolved to protect us. Back when we lived in tribes, life was simple. We were safe, or we were in danger. We were part of the tribe, or we were kicked out into the wilderness. As long as we were part of a community, we were safe. If we were not being threatened by some wild animal, we were safe. When the fear switch is in the off position, we can eat and digest, rest and restore; our immune system is humming away ? we’re in balance. But when we are in “DANGER MODE,” our body’s attention and energy are directed toward the threat and away from healing, sleeping and restoring, re-energizing, and other goals that we have.

The system was designed to be in the “OFF MODE” most of the time and activate only when needed. When it stays in the DANGER MODE too long, resources throughout the body become depleted. This is what STRESS and CHRONIC ANXIETY are about.

The fear switch has a hair trigger, and is very slow to turn off. Anything that may be a threat to survival will turn the switch on- it’s like hitting a panic alarm in the brain, which instantaneously starts up a powerful cascade of effects throughout the brain and body that mobilize for action. Consider what might happen if you were walking through the woods, enjoying nature, and suddenly came across a mountain lion standing nearby looking at you, hungrily. Your panic alarm sounds, you mentally focus on the threat and how to get away from it. There’s a surge of adrenaline, your heart pounds, muscles tense, stomach tightens up, resulting in very powerful immediate effects which come on within seconds.

The fear switch is activated without thinking. It’s designed with fast-track circuitry, to bypass the slow-track, our thinking. Then, the lion turns around and walks away. The fear hormones are already circulating through your body, and though you can now tell your brain that you’re safe, those hormones will cause you to continue to feel the fear in all of its power for about the next 15 minutes. This means your body will be yelling DANGER while your head is saying there is no longer any danger. This actually happens frequently in our lives, and is usually experienced as anxiety, worry, and stress. Understanding how this system works will help you to almost totally eliminate stress, anxiety, and fearfulness, allowing you to do much more with your life.

Consider how this primitive system works in modern society with all its complexities. Walking across a street you suddenly see a truck racing toward you. Fight or flight is healthy. Or we may occasionally see a rattlesnake in our area. Fear switch on. Sometimes you may walk through a neighborhood you know to be dangerous. Fear is justified, it “fits the facts.” In these situations, our survival is in danger. Let’s say for simplicity, yes, there’s a lion in the room, and I’m about to be eaten.

But let’s consider many other everyday situations that “ACTIVATE” the fear system inappropriately, when there is no lion in the room, and you’re not about to be eaten. Because human brains developed the ability to think about the future, we can now also “see” many bad things that can happen, but haven’t happened, to us, our loved ones, and the entire planet. Each time we do, these thoughts or “visions” at least gently activate the fear switch, and unless we tell ourselves we will survive (losing people, losing a job, etc.) they keep the fear going in the form of anxiety. These triggers really add up, usually in the form of “What if… (this) and what if… (that)," and don’t allow the recharging our bodies need. It’s not just the mental worrying; it’s also keeping the fear chemicals going through our bodies, keeping us constantly, day and night on-guard for danger, depleting us and diverting our physical and mental resources from what’s going on in the present and from focusing on our goals and priorities.

So far I’ve been talking about immediate threats like wild animals and muggers, but what about being rejected from the tribe? This threat is related to shame, and our concern about whether we fit in or not. For our ancestors “not fitting in” was a major threat to survival. They could be banished to the wilderness. Growing up, what do we believe happens to people who “don’t fit in”? The wilderness we imagine as children is “the streets ?” Living under bridges, homeless, jobless, and friendless, eating out of dumpsters, unloved and alone forever. Our brain registers this outcome as a fate worse than death. Kill me now. I’d rather be hit by a truck than live out my life alone and unloved. This thought, belief, the mere possibility triggers that fear-response BIG TIME! These images and beliefs are implanted when we’re very young, and in black or white terms. You are good or bad. You’re normal or not, ok or not ok, strong or weak, in or out. I call this kind of thinking “Toxic Judging.” To not be normal, to be rejected by the tribe, feels worse to the brain than being eaten by a wild animal.

This black and white thinking comes both from childhood “programming” and from the way the young brain develops. This tendency to judge, to make things either/or is very powerful, but the real world is not so simplistic. Part of our brain “lights up” when we consider how we’re different, unique, and separate from others (“I’m different”). Another part “lights up” when we get in touch with how we are all similar, inter-connected, and part of a greater society, planet, and universe (“everything is inter-dependent and inter-connected”). In reality it’s BOTH. We are each unique AND we are all interconnected.

If we feel like we’re “inherently different” from other people it’s because we are! We can learn to balance that realization by taking time to focus on the “we are all interconnected” part of the brain. This is part of the purpose of meditation. Another way you can energize and expand that part of the brain is by way of community involvement and spiritual ACTIONS.


Thinking we are normal or not, “OK or NOT OK” is irrational. It’s black or white, and ultimately there is no definition of “normal.” Each of us is different, separate, similar, and inter-connected. When you digest this you realize:

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.

Everyone is ok, even if you feel like you’re different. Since “self-esteem” is about whether you’re ok or not ok, “good enough” or not, “self esteem” is also an irrational concept. You can stop worrying about it.

Even people with “psychological problems” are normal. In fact, this “Toxic Judging,” worrying about not being “normal” or “adequate” creates a lot of suffering and mental illness.

Everyone has fears and insecurities deep inside. So, deep down inside most people are worrying about how others (including you!) will judge them!

If we are rejected by one group, we can usually find another group that we fit in with.

Not all groups have the same values and beliefs. Your beliefs or actions could get you rejected by one group and welcomed by another. Decide what your values are first, then find groups that fit you.

How others judge us is not as crucial for long term-survival as it once was. Rejection does not mean that “we’re not ok,” nor that we will wind up alone in the wilderness or sleeping under bridges.

When you feel fear, or its milder form, anxiety, ask yourself “Is there a lion in the room?” Usually there isn’t. Then think through, is there a real problem or not? You can learn when and how to turn the (fear) alarm system off, just as when to listen to your other emotions, and when NOT to.

Determine if you have to act immediately. (Usually you don’t)

Tell yourself you’ll survive, there’s no lion in the room, and it’s ok to shut off the alarm.

The alarm will continue to sound anyway. At this point work on distracting yourself from the alarm and calming yourself before trying to think any further. Have available a list of music and other activities you can use to regulate your emotions.

Remind yourself it’s a false alarm.

Gradually the alarm will shut down.

You can also learn to avoid false or exaggerated alarms. (Prevention).

If you want to separate yourself from “Toxic Judging,” then learn everything you can about Mindfulness and practice it all the time. You will learn to get out of the past, stop worrying about the future, and live in the present, where the action is.

What happens when life is one fear after another? Like a never-ending conveyor belt of situations to worry about? Will there be enough money? Can I do everything I have to? Will I be on time? What will people think of me? Am I ok? On and on…, each thought activating the fear alarm. We call the mental and physical effects of this process STRESS. Most people think stress is inevitable in life. While we do want a small amount of stress or challenge at times to avoid boredom, we can learn to do a lot more with our lives, live healthier, AND experience much less stress and anxiety. More on that in the next update.

Upcoming “brain updates” will help you improve your:

  • Self esteem

  • Energy, motivation, productivity, outlook

  • Priorities and values

  • Emotion regulation

  • Eating habits

  • Relationships, intimacy

  • Happiness

And many other areas of life! 


If you or someone you care about is in need of support, call Foresight today to schedule an appointment. All of our therapists are continuing to support our members through telehealth.


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