Moving Through Fear #1- A basic introduction into parafunctional emotions

In this ongoing series I want to examine tools and strategies to deal with fear and other emotions in Parkour and movement practice. In the first part I will give a brief introduction into philosophical, psychological and (neuro)biological theories of emotions that ground further investigations into how to deal with them.


“Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility.” Sören Kierkegaard

Fear and mental barriers are a crucial part of Parkour, many other movement practices like climbing or fighting and life in general. Existential philosophers like Kierkegaard, Satre or Heidegger place fear as an integral part of being human. They realized that fear is not something to be eliminated but a symptom of the freedom we are condemned to and therefor something to be celebrated. Fear is a powerful teacher. The goal of any of the tools I want to present is not to be a slave to your emotions but to be able to manage and regulate them and therefore reach a greater degree of freedom.

Fear! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing(?)

I use the term parafunctional emotions to avoid the word dysfunctional. Fear is very useful and functional from an evolutionary perspective.[1] “Fear and anxiety triggered by strangers, snakes, heights, and the like served our ancestors well by helping them avoid dangers but can cause distress in the modern world” writes the renowned brain scientist Joseph LeDoux.[2] We are not hunter gatherers anymore and our needs have evolved from looking for food and shelter to looking for meaning, fulfilment, authenticity and resonance.[3] Evolution doesn’t care about meaning, it cares that you don’t fall from a cliff or a high branch and waste your valuable genes. Fear usually leads to an automatic reaction that strips us of our resources and capacity. What was once useful now leads to jittery knees, sweaty hands and an unfocused mind. The goal now is to be aware of fear, accept it, appreciate it and what it tells us but not let it control us.

What is fear exactly?

Fear is an emotion. Emotions are “integral expression of life, in which the whole of the organism is directed towards a specific situation in its environment based on its values and motivations”.[4] This technical definition comes from embodiment theory of the mind, which posits that emotions are not simply certain brain activities but complex circular interactions between brain, body and environment.[5]

Every emotion is intractably connected to physiological changes and specific environmental cues.

Fear is a primary emotion. External cues trigger activity within the subcortical-limbic structures in the brain, primarily the amygdala and the periaqueductal grey.[6] From this a reaction of the entire organism emerges like an elevated heart rate, changes in facial expression, muscle tone, breathing etc.

Secondary emotions like shame or frustration are primarily caused by thought patterns or mental images from the prefrontal cortex. They are based on early development, experience and learned and conditioned values.

Fear is a mechanism to detect danger and react to it.[7]

As a primary emotion fear is something we are born with. Still it is highly individual. During the first two years the rough structure of the brain is still in formation and after that it is subject to constant but finer changes. Based on our experience the brain remains plastic and forms and reforms connections. Like muscles certain patterns become stronger over time depending on their usage.[8]

Fear is a motivational system.

It helps us make decisions in a heartbeat without the need for extended deliberation. Emotions and the physical sensations the come hand in hand with are a type of memory. They are an accumulation of our own experiences and of our ancestors. Our experiences and reactions to fear shape our future experience of this emotion

First steps to deal with fear

In the future we will go in depth on specific ways to manage fear. For now I’ll leave you with a small task:

I tried to show some scientific findings on fear but they always lack the subjective experience of fear.

So how does your very personal fear look, feel, sound or taste like?

Pay attention to it, watch it arise and try to describe it.

Does it have a shape, a color, a sound?

What function does this specific fear serve? What is useful about it?

If you want to find out more about fear you can follow this series or join me in Berlin on an upcoming workshop. More about that on my facebook page.

Have fun and be save,





[1] Menzies und Clarke 1995; Bracha 2006: 835.

[2] 2015: 17.

[4] Fuchs 2017: 147.

[5] Storch et al. 2016.

[6] Damasio 1995: 180 f; 2000 67 f.

[7] LeDoux 2015: 97.

[8] Fuchs 2017: 161 ff.


Bracha, H. S. (2006) Human brain evolution and the “Neuroevolutonary Time-depth Principle:” Implications for the Reclassification of fear-circuitry-related traits in DSM-V and for studying resilience to warzone-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 30 (2006) 827–853.

Damasio, A. (1995) Descartes‘ Irrtum. Fühlen, Denken und das menschliche Gehirn. List, München.

Damasio, A. (2000) Ich fühle, also bin ich. Die Entschlüsselung des Bewusstseins. List, München.

Fuchs, T. (2017) Das Gehirn – Ein Beziehungsorgan. 5th edition. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart.

Kierkegaard, S. (1980 [1844]) The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orientng Deliberaton on the Dogmatc Issue of Hereditary Sin, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

LeDoux, J. (2015) Anxious – Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. Viking, New York.

Menzies, RG; Clarke, JC. (1995). „The ethology of acrophobia and its relationship to severity and individual response patterns“. Behaviour Research and Therapy 33 (31): 499–501.

Storch, M., Canteni, B., Hüther, G., Tschacher, W. (2016) Embodiment. Die Wechselwirkung von Körper und Psyche verste

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