What Is Fear?
Fear is a reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus (spider, dark alley, public speaking) and finishes with the release of chemicals that cause quickened breathing, rapid heartbeat, and tense muscles.
The communications within the brain may lead us to conscious thought and action; there are other types of communication within the brain that produce autonomic – or automatic – responses.
Fear is an automatic response a person has to immediate physical and emotional danger. Our body undergoes physiological changes, known as the fight or flight response, in order to best prepare for the perceived situation to come.
What is the Flight or Fight Response?
To produce the fight or flight response, something all animals possess, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. The sympathetic nervous system uses the nervous system to activate the pathways while the adrenal-cortical system uses the bloodstream. The two systems in tandem produce the flight or fight response.
Physiological changes include:
- Dilated pupils – to take in as much light as possible
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Veins constrict to allow blood to be sent to the major muscle groups (this leads to the “chill” associated with fear)
- Rapid breathing
- Muscles tense up due to a mixture of glucose and adrenaline, including the tiny muscles in the skin, which are responsible for goosebumps.
- Non-essential systems – such as digestion and the immune system – shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions
- Tunnel vision
- Decreased hearing
- Blood glucose increases
- Brain focuses on the big picture to determine where the threat is coming from, making smaller tasks hard to focus on
These physiological changes allow the body to quickly and powerfully respond to the situation by one of two methods. To fight means to engage in a physical confrontation of the issue, person, or situation. For example, an adrenaline rush to an elderly woman who sees a child trapped under a car could result in her ability to lift the car, where she ordinarily could not.
The flight response is the intense need or desire to flee the situation and escape.
Parts of the Brain Involved in Fear Response:
There are many different parts of the brain involved in the fear response.
- Sensory Cortex – interprets sensory data.
- Thalamus – determines where to send incoming data sent by the eyes, ears, mouth and/or skin.
- Hippocampus – stores and retrieves conscious memories; processes every set of stimuli to establish context.
- Amygdala – stores memories of fear, determine potential threats, and decodes emotions.
How is Fear Created?
Fear is unconsciously created in the brain. There are two paths of the fear response, both occur simultaneously:
1) The Low Road (also known as the “take no chances road,” or “shoot first and question later” road) is quick and dirty.
The stimulus is generally more direct and tangible, like a spider. As soon as you see a spider, the brain sends this data to the thalamus. The thalamus – unsure if it is actually a danger – knows that it might be and forwards the information to the amygdala. The amygdala accepts the impulses and takes action to protect you from the stimuli by telling the hypothalamus to begin the flight or flight response that may save your life.
2) The High Road is a more thoughtful approach that takes a more thoughtful interpretation of the events. Rather than the flight or flight response, the high road considers all possibilities of the fear-inducing stimuli.
When your eyes and ears sense stimuli, they send the information to the thalamus which sends the information to the sensory cortex, where its meaning is ascertained. The sensory cortex establishes that there is more than one interpretation for the data. From the sensory cortex, where the context of the data is established, the information is passed to the hippocampus, which determines if the particular data has been seen before and, if so, what it meant. The hippocampus will also pick up on other data surrounding the situation. If the hippocampus decides that the situation is innocuous, it will send a message to the amygdala that there is no danger, which, in turn, tells the hypothalamus to turn off the flight or fight response.
What’s The Point of Fear?
Without fear, humans wouldn’t survive long. We’d thoughtlessly step off cliffs, wander into oncoming traffic, or thoughtlessly handle poisonous spiders.
The purpose of fear, among humans and animals, is to promote survival. Those who have feared the correct things are those who have survived to pass on their genes. While we, unlike our ancestors, are no longer fighting for our lives, fear still serves the same purpose it always has: to protect us from dangerous situations.
We are also conditioned to fear through evolution as well as experiences. That is why some people fear spiders and others fear airplanes. Perhaps they were exposed to a fear stimulus at an early enough age to have wired the amygdala to be associated with fear.
Examples of Common Fears:
- The future
- Nuclear war
- Being alone
- Public speaking
- Going to the dentist
- Most of the fears that we face as teenagers are carried into adulthood. Some studies have shown that humans may have a genetic predisposition to harmful things – rats, snakes, spiders – that once posed a real threat to humans as they carried diseases or caused death.
While many fears may be considered universal, there are also fears which are particular to certain cultures, climates, and areas of the country. What we fear is deeply rooted in our life experiences. Someone in the Midwest may be more afraid of tornadoes than someone where tornadoes are not a common part of life. Someone in California may be more fearful of earthquakes than someone who doesn’t live with that as a real threat.
Experiencing fear every now and then is a normal part of life. But living with chronic fear can be both physically and emotionally debilitating. Living with an impaired immune response and high blood pressure causes illness, and refusing to participate in daily activities because you might be confronted with heights or social interaction doesn’t make for a very fulfilling life. So what can we do about our fears?
Fears are a normal part of everyday life. However, living with chronic, debilitating fears can be emotionally as well as physically debilitating.
What Are Phobias?
Long-Term Response To Fear:
While the body is capable of amazing feats when placed in a fear situation, long-term stress or fear signals of heightened awareness can depress the immune system and slow down body processes such as digestion and libido. This is most commonly in situations of abuse, trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
While a certain amount of fear is normal, excessive fears and phobias are not. Here are some practical tips to overcoming fears:
- Learn about your fear. Uncertainty is a gigantic part of fear and deeply understanding what you’re afraid of may help overcome that fear
- Remember, it doesn’t matter WHY you’re afraid. Knowing why you are afraid of one thing and not another doesn’t help overcome that fear. In fact, it may delay progress in areas that help to overcome it. Stop trying to understand it.
- Find someone who is not afraid and spend time with that person. Take that person with you as you work to overcome that fear.
- Train – start overcoming your fear in small, bite-sized steps. Slowly reintroducing yourself to your fear may help to erase it.
- Play mind-games with yourself. If you’re afraid of snakes, take a trip to the zoo and try to imagine all of the snakes wearing clown-costumes. That puts you, the fearful one, in a position of judgment.
- Stop looking at the bigger picture and focus only upon each step as you work through it. If you’re trying to overcome a fear of heights, work on being okay in the lobby of a tall building rather than on the fifty-first floor.
- Seek professional help. Fears aren’t simple emotions and overcoming them may be hard to do alone. There is no shame in having a professional guide you through the myriad of therapeutic approaches to manage and control fears.
- Talk about your fears – sharing your fears out loud with someone else may make that fear stimuli less daunting.
Additional Fear Resources:
The Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center – The first hospital-affiliated facility of its kind, sponsored by White Plains Hospital Center in NY. Provides workshops, support groups, and info on CBT therapy.
Anxiety Care UK – The organization does not provide services to minors but does offer support for parents and guardians. Online chat available Mondays.
Anxiety Disorders Association of America – Offers great information and resources for local support groups. There is a “find a therapist” tool and personal stories that will offer support and a sense of community.
AnxietyTribe.com – A resource for support groups, forums and chat rooms for anxiety sufferers.
Meditation and Anxiety – Natural and spiritual ways to calm yourself while in an anxious state. Some people find a few minutes of meditation when in a situation that causes anxiety significantly reduces the length of their anxious episode.
Page last audited 7/2019