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 body parts that will enable us to fight or flee. That’s the sensation of having a blood supply through the stomach.
Humans 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 suddenly strike fear 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 responses. Fear is 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. 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 that influences future action. These memories can be about creatures, events, places, people, and behaviors like anger or panic.
It leads to our instinct-like response, which starts in the brain’s immaculate region, located deep within the temporal lobe. It is central to emotional reactions, including 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 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, in reality, isn’t scary. Shortly after realizing it wasn’t a threat. It was critical for survival in the past.
Why do we fear the wrong things?
The phenomenon of fearing the wrong things, also known as irrational or misplaced fear, can be attributed to several psychological and cognitive factors. Here are a few reasons why this can occur:
Availability Heuristic: The availability heuristic often influences our perception of risk and fear. This heuristic is a mental shortcut where we rely on immediate examples or easily recalled instances when assessing the likelihood or consequences of an event. If a vivid or emotionally charged event receives significant media attention or personal experiences, we may overestimate its risk and develop an irrational fear.
Media Influence: The media plays a significant role in shaping our fears. Media outlets tend to focus on sensational or shocking stories, which can distort our perception of risk. As a result, we may develop fears about relatively rare events or exaggerate the likelihood of certain dangers.
Cognitive Biases: Human beings are prone to cognitive biases, which can affect our judgment and decision-making. Biases such as the negativity bias, where negative information has a stronger impact on us than positive information, can contribute to disproportionate fears. We tend to pay more attention to and remember negative events or potential threats, leading to an inflated sense of fear.
Lack of Control: Fears are driven by a lack of control or uncertainty. We may feel more fearful of situations where we perceive a lack of control, even if the risk is minimal. For example, people may fear flying in an airplane despite statistically being safer than other modes of transportation because they feel less control over the situation.
Cultural and Social Influences: Societal and cultural factors can also shape our fears. Social influences, such as the fears of others or societal norms, can impact our fears. Cultural beliefs and values may also contribute to specific fears or phobias unique to certain cultures or communities.
There are two main categories of fear.
- Some fears are, which means that we’re born with these. We tend to share these same fears. The common innate fears are the fear of death.
- The second category of fears is acquired fears. We’ve learned and developed a phobia toward these things 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.
Fear can make the heart race, breath quicken, scream, sweat, dilate pupils, and 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-in 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 brain says ‘danger’ and 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.
The thalamus does not know whether this is the real danger, so shooting the signal straight to the amygdala is possible. It is the brain’s alarm system. The Amygdala sends a dangerous signal to the hypothalamus, called 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 to the sensory cortex. That processes and determines meaning from the stimuli. It sends the gathered information to the Hippocampus. It stores memory for more context and asks whether it has experienced this. 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.
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 like 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 for people dressing up as clowns, eventually leading to people who didn’t previously have a clown phobia. This emotional contagion spreads fear under other emotions.
How do you overcome fear?
You can use two techniques in psychology to try and alleviate unknown fears.
The first technique is perhaps the most extreme, known as flooding. It is 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. The idea behind it is that eventually, you might be massively anxious at first. You learn that no harm will come of you, and naturally, your anxiety 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 fear. For example, if you are 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 reach the stage where you can handle a spider without this fear response. So again, it’s about learning to break these associations between a spider and something bad happening to you.
How do fears turn into a phobia?
When fears transform and become severe, 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 many associated factors exist. For example, a phobia may be linked to 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. Until the mice learned that the smells of science having bad would 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, it is known as epigenetics, a study of how behaviors and the environment can cause changes that affect how genes work. The emotional trauma might be genetically and biologically passed down from generation to generation. That emotional damage to one person or a community can affect their descendants, genetically altering their DNA.
In conclusion, fear is part of biology. It is there to give us the best chance of survival. 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
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