Fear is an emotion that seems to be almost universal. It’s experienced across a whole range of different cultures and even in other animals such as chimpanzees. It’s the name we give to our interpretation of biological changes. So when humans experience fear, it’s due to perhaps their blood being diverted away from digestive organs. To flow towards parts of the body that will enable us to fight or to flee. And that’s the sensation of having a blood supply through the stomach.
Humans get afraid and feel fear, maybe not like that example but at different times. Seeing a snake or spider, a loud noise or a creak on a floorboard late at night can strike fear suddenly right through bodies. What is this feeling of fear, and where does it come from?
What is fear?
Fear is one of the most basic human emotions. It is programmed into the nervous system and works somewhat like an instinct. It casually interacts with many other processes, including gathering information saving it to memory and carrying out our bodily response. Fear is part of one of the primary threat management systems to assess the world for opportunities and threats.
Almost everyone fears something, whether afraid of heights being fair sleeping in the dark, or being afraid to travel on a plane. Fear plays a crucial role in both our lives and our biology. A primary survival mechanism signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. And it is an essential part of keeping us safe. But what is this feeling of fear? Where does it come from, and do we even need it.
How does fear work in the brain?
Information about the world is gathered through senses such as sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch. It helps us explore and react to the external world. Once we collect this information, it is stored in our brains and becomes a memory. Memory is the ability to save and recall information. It is the retention of data over time to influence future action. These memories can be about creatures, events, places, people, and behaviors like anger or panic.
It leads into our instinct-like response, which starts in the region of the brain called the immaculate located deep within the temporal lobe. It plays a central role in emotional reactions, including feelings like fear, anxiety, and anger. When the imaginer generates a fear of motion, it stimulates the hypothalamus. It sends impulses through the sympathetic nervous system to many different body parts to trigger a fight or flight response.
Especially as filled with chemicals can also come into play with fear, namely endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. As a result, you may get scared of something that’s in reality, isn’t scary. And shortly after realizing it wasn’t a threat. This was critical for survival in the past.
Why do we fear the wrong things?
There are two main categories of fear.
- Some fears are in a which means that we’re born with these. And we tend to share these same fears. And of the common innate fears are the fear of death.
- The second category of fears is acquired fears. These are things that we’ve learned and developed a phobia towards even though. There’s no biological reason.
The acquired fear that’s seen the biggest increase in recent years is called coulrophobia, and that’s the fear of clowns. The reason is that we’ve learned to associate something that was once quite harmless.
The feeling of fear can make the heart race, breath quicken, scream, sweat, pupils dilate, freeze you in place. It can even cause involuntary urination. These are all stress reactions caused by the limbic system. A chain reaction in brain areas works together to control a built-in ‘fight or flight’ response. People have this built into to help them react and survive threats. How the brain has compartments that communicate to react to a threat?
Two simultaneous processes are going on which decide how we react. When a perceived threat happens, whether unexpected sound, motion, or any other sense, the brains says ‘danger’ engages fight or flight response. The Sensory stimulus is sent into the Thalamus. It is the area of the brain in charge of receiving initial sensory signals and relaying them to the next destination.
As the thalamus does not know whether this is the real danger, but there is a possibility, it shoots the signal straight to the Amygdala. It is the brain’s alarm system. The Amygdala sends a danger signal to the hypothalamus, also referred to as the ‘Lizard brain.’ It is responsible for synthesizing and secreting hormones. Also, It reacts and sends out neurochemicals, hormones:
- Including adrenaline into the body.
- Increasing things like breathing and heart rate.
- Dilating pupils to maximize further visual information input.
- Pumping more blood into muscles.
So we are primed to run or fight. The original stimuli are again sent to the thalamus. Instead of escalating this to the Amygdala, it is sent through to the sensory cortex. That processes and determines meaning from the stimuli. It sends the gathered information onto the Hippocampus. It stores memory for more context and asks whether it has experienced this before. It also considers other factors that might help hive its context.
The Hippocampus takes a measured approach and tells the fired-up Amygdala whether to shut down and stop sending signals to the hypothalamus. Or, it continues with the fight or flight reaction engaged by the low road. This is why we feel fear before calming down in a situation we evaluate as not dangerous after all.
Lots of people seek out fear, enjoying being, and feeling scared. Watching horror films, playing scary games, or even going on a roller-coaster. When a fight or flight response is triggered, it releases chemicals that are similar to happiness. People then feel a safe environment and then enjoy being scared.
Frequently asked questions
Why can fears spread so rapidly through populations?
It’s because of something called emotional contagion. Humans seem to have this drive as social animals to copy other people’s behavior and mimic their responses. So there was a space of people dressing up as clowns, which eventually led to people who didn’t previously have a clown phobia. This emotional contagion spreads fear under other emotions.
How to overcome fear?
There are two techniques that you can use in psychology to try and alleviate unknown fears.
The first technique is perhaps the most extreme, and it’s known as flooding. This is basically where you’re forced to come from the worst-case scenario. So, for example, if you had a fear of clowns, you might be put into a room with a large number of clowns. And the idea behind it is that eventually, although you might be massively anxious at first. You learn that no harm will come of you, and your anxiety it naturally has to subside.
The second technique is known as systematic desensitization. This is where you work with a psychologist to build up your ability to tolerate whatever you’re scared of. For example, if you were afraid of spiders, you might start by reading about spiders. Try to look at a picture of a spider.
Then perhaps be in a room where you can see a spider outside where it can’t get to you. You gradually build this until you eventually get to the stage where you can handle a spider without this fear response. So again, it’s about learning to break these associations you have between a spider something bad happening to you.
How do fears turn into phobia?
When fears transform and become so severe that they cause tremendous anxiety and interfere with normal life. They become phobias. A phobia is an intense fear of something that, in reality, poses little to no actual danger. Common phobias and fears include closed-in places, heights, highway driving flying insects, snakes, and needles. If you have a phobia, you probably realize that fear is irrational.
Phobias don’t have a single cause, but there are many associated factors. For example, a phobia may be linked with a particular incident or trauma. It may be a learned response that a person develops early on in life from a parent or sibling, or genetics may play well.
In a study, a set of months would be given a chemical to sniff shortly before receiving a mild shock. It was until the mice learned that the smells of science having bad was going to happen. A whole generation later, the offspring of that first group of mice also reacted in fear to the smell.
Even though they had never experienced an electric shock themselves, it is known as epigenetics, a study of how behaviors and the environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. The emotional trauma might be genetically, biologically passed down from one generation to the next. That emotional damage done to one person or a community can affect their descendants, genetically altering their very DNA.
In conclusion, fear is part of biology. It is there to give the best chance of survival throughout lives. They can progressively get worse by giving tremendous anxiety. Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured.
Hamm, AO, “Specific phobias.” The Psychiatric Clinics of North America.
Straight A’s in Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Perugi, G; Frare, F; Toni, “Diagnosis and treatment of agoraphobia with panic disorder.”
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.), Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, pp. 204, 218–219, ISBN 978-0890425558