Fear is an involuntarily reaction to potential threats. Think of it as your body’s way of surviving. Your brain activates certain reactions when your senses detect a threat: the reactions in your body, is what you experience as fear free picture.
When that happens, you’re faced with two options: run for your life or fight and give it your best shot. This is a common reaction amongst mammals. It’s known as the fight or flight response. When you face your phobia of dogs, heights, lightning or dolls, a part of your brain regulates fear within the temporal lobes known as the amygdala.
Fight or flight?
When stress triggers the amygdala part of your brain, your ability to think rationally may be overridden: your body diverts all its energy to facing the threat that’s causing you to panic.
The release of hormones and neurochemicals increases your heart rate which makes you breathe much faster. Your blood pushes away from your stomach and intestines, and floods to your muscles to prepare you to fight or run. When your body goes into this mode, your heart rate and blood pressure go up. Hello adrenaline!
What does fear do?
Fear restricts the way you think as your mind is only focused on the two options. This is why you’d be less likely to be creative and have an open mind-set while you’re busy panicking.
Research suggests that fear is hardwired into the brain. Neuroscientists have found networks in your brain that work together. This begins in the limbic system (an emotional motor system responsible for the experience and expression of emotion) and runs all the way to the prefrontal cortex (responsible for complex cognitive behaviour), and back.
So, when these networks are electrically or chemically stimulated, they produce fear, even when there’s nothing that could trigger it. Feeling fear is neither a sign of weakness or abnormal. Being afraid is part of a normal brain function. In fact, a lack of fear may be a sign of serious brain damage.
Breathe it out
The worst part of fear is when your body shuts down. You may have heard this many times, but taking deep breaths during a stressful situation does work. So, learn how to breathe the right way. Mastering conscious control over your breathing is the best thing you can do for yourself. Practise deep, even, controlled breathing when you aren’t scared. Slow and even breathing helps slow down your heart rate. It can also make you feel like you’re more in control of the situation, which can help block some of the effects of stress.
According to research from the University of Minnesota fear can affect the way our brains work. The brain reacts immediately to signals from the amygdala, instead of the usual rational processing. This overactive state is sometimes referred to as ‘the amygdala hijack’: the brain perceives events as negative and remembers them that way.
Living under constant threat can affect your health too.
- Fear weakens your immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems (ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome). It can lead to accelerated ageing and even premature death.
- Constant fear and tension can damage the formation of long-term memories and wreak havoc on certain parts of the brain. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave you anxious most of the time. With chronic fear, the world looks scary and your memories confirm that.
- Fear can interrupt processes in the brain that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and make sense of other information, reflect before acting, and act ethically.
- This affects decision-making which is likely to make you feel intense emotions and react impulsively.
We can’t get rid of fear altogether – and we shouldn’t: it’s a natural part of our body that protects us from danger. What we can do, is find ways to manage our fears, and to seek help for any irrational fears. If you have extreme fears or phobias, why not talk to one of our doctors? They’d love to help!