How Does Fear Work?

May 24, 2017

Fear and pain don’t have a great lot in life – they exist solely to be hated, for the betterment of everyone. The way both fear and pain function is by enforcing a highly negative feeling on you to keep you safe from something even far worse – it’s basically the body’s own biological form of tough love, a father who yells and screams at you for leaving your phone at home and acting like a careless child because he simply wants you to be safe.

The way the body basically functions – and this includes fear – is through motivation. Just like how we train animals and each other to perform certain functions through certain forms of motivation, thus does the body guide us in surviving and living. At least, it mostly does. We didn’t exactly live very long a few thousand years ago, so the idea is that we evolved to be careful just long enough to procreate and ensure our offspring’s survival, and that of the tribe’s offspring in general.

Our body does this by rewarding us for exercise, sex, food, etc. and it punishes us for getting hurt and putting our life in danger. When you’re near the summit of a mountain and you shoot a glance down a steep cliff, you’re not being a wimp for feeling an overwhelming urge to relieve yourself – it’s a natural human reaction to avoid steep cliffs. We’re not 100% sure how this works – genetics and epigenetics and evolutionary psychology all play a role here – but the general point is that fear, and consequently, pain, are extremely important and our best friends.

But then, you might ask, why do we work so hard to overcome them if they’re our best friends? And why is fear a natural part of the human psyche when we also subsequently chase thrills and love the rush of adrenaline? Why do dumb and risky things always end up being the most fun anyone could have in life? These are all extremely pertinent questions, so let’s take a good look at them.

How Fear Works

On a purely mechanical basis, fear starts on the outside – well, usually. It begins with a stimulus that kickstarts the chain reaction in your brain causing the actual fear itself to manifest – that stimulus could be a spider, a frightening sound, someone surprising you from behind, or the building anticipation of danger. Fear is unconsciously triggered – that means it just happens, and it’s rather hard to teach yourself not to fear.

It all begins within the brain – five distinct portions of the brain activate in diverse ways to create the natural fight or flight response that fear causes. The basic steps in which fear is generated are as follows:

  • A sensory organ in the body picks up a stimulus which triggers your sense of fear (like an unknown touch surprising you in the dark).
  • The brain interprets the stimuli and determines whether you’re dealing with a possible threat, and stores threatening experiences for future purposes.
  • Finally, your brain pumps the adrenaline into you sending you into a fight or flight response.

Not all fear is interpreted in quite the same fashion, though. For example, if you’re in an abandoned building and you hear a sound off in the distance, you might take a slow and careful approach to better assess the threat, if there even is one. Maybe it was just the wind knocking something over.

On the other hand, if you see someone running at you with a knife, you don’t assess any further. You turn around and bolt out of there as fast as possible – even if it turns out that that wasn’t a knife, and they were just running up to greet someone else.

We’re careful creatures all things considered, so our natural response isn’t to confirm beyond a doubt whether something is dangerous – it’s to assume that it is if it even just seems to be, and to subsequently get the hell out of dodge before doing anything else.

Getting the hell out of dodge involves the body’s natural fight or flight response. This is basically a reaction from the sympathetic nervous system as per the brain to activate a bunch of functions in your body to release certain chemicals into the bloodstream, particularly norepinephrine and epinephrine, otherwise known as noradrenaline and adrenaline.

Dubbed stress hormones, adrenaline and other chemicals like cortisol basically tell your body that it must work overtime to save your life – investing a little bit more into your body now so you can live through the danger tomorrow. Several things happen – quite often, if the danger is high enough, you relieve yourself by emptying your bladder and rectum to lighten the load and make it easier for you to get away. Your muscles tense and your heart rate pumps up to quickly increase the amount of circulation in your body and make you stronger, faster, more responsive.

Because of these reactions, some people actively seek out fear. They enjoy horror movies and horror games, much like spice lovers seek out hotter foods and thrill chasers seek out extreme activities. To most, fear is meant to be a deterrent – to some, the rush of getting scared and the feeling after the moment of fear itself arrives is worth pursuing.

All in all, it’s extremely fascinating. But, it’s not exactly a foolproof system.

Why We Overcome Fear

Our brains are incredibly complex, filled with over a hundred billion neurons, and designed to be flexible and plastic enough to learn languages, master mathematical concepts, figure out complex cultural phenomenon, pick up on humor and memorize countless bits of information while still retaining basic instincts and common human social cues.

However, as Zachary Ament from Westwind Recovery Residences said, “despite how complex we are at birth, our needs and priorities as individuals have changed massively over the different eras of human civilization. And that aside, fear is meant to be a failsafe – just because we’re scared of doing something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It just means that there’s a good chance we’ll get hurt doing it, and we should take that into consideration before making a choice.

Look at it this way. A warning isn’t meant to make you stop doing something, it’s meant to help you understand the dangers of doing it. Fear is like pain, but it’s not quite always the same. Pain is a surefire deterrent except in cases of nerve damage and psychosomatic pain, whereas fear can be irrational, born or trained into you by an unfortunate event that doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect real risk. If you were bitten by one aggressive untrained dog as a child, then you might develop a fear of dogs, even though most dogs are docile and bred specifically to interact and help human beings.

You’ll never totally overcome fear, and that’s fine – you’re meant to be able to react to threats and dangers, and any dog lover can attest to the fact that if a stranger’s grown Pitbull dashes towards you, there always the chance it won’t be a friendly encounter. However, you can temper your reactions, and build better reflexes. Instead of fearing the edge of a cliff, you can learn to balance, climb and overcome your natural fear of heights. By interacting with spiders, you can learn to escort them outside without having to resort to killing them in your home.

There are plenty of advantages to tempering your fears if only to make you a more rational person. While fear is meant to make you consider the odds, it’s usually very instinctive – we tend to even become aggressive when confronted by what we fear, our mind reduced to a singular thought: eliminate or get away from the threat.

Fear Gone Wrong

A major aspect of fear is that it’s meant to protect us – but like an overprotective father, fear can sometimes just go a little bit too far and cause us to worry and fret over threats and problems that don’t even exist, to begin with. This is the case with anxiety, a large spectrum of mental disorders related to fear and worry. Usually, when we worry, it’s another function meant to help us avoid death and pain. We worry for our children because we’re meant to keep them safe. We worry about a plane crashing because we’ve heard a lot about that and know that it’s a danger we’re entirely powerless to stop, no matter how miniscule the chances.

But in cases of anxiety, the brain worries more than normal. Far more than normal. Whereas it’s normal to worry about a plane crashing when you’re in one and you run into some turbulence, an arachnophobia, for example, has you worried about spiders a random and brings you back to terrifying thoughts of spiders in the least opportune of times.

Another common example is a fear of heights. It’s normal to fear extreme heights, as I mentioned earlier, but there’s a large gap between that and basically fearing to stand on a step ladder. When a fear goes from practical threat assessment and common sense to crippling levels of terror over a non-existent threat, you know you’ve got trouble.

An anxiety disorder can only be diagnosed by a psychiatric professional, but anxiety is best described as a fear-based nervous emotion that interferes with your everyday life, at times causing panic attacks where your body goes into a severe fight or flight reaction without any actual stimuli to cause it.

Anxiety can be treated, but the length and type of treatment differ from individual to individual based on their circumstances and the factors that determine the anxiety. In other words, if it’s something like post-traumatic stress, then trauma therapy and certain techniques like brainspotting can help a patient relive repressed memories and find the psychological closure needed to end the anxiety. In some cases, like hereditary social anxiety, therapy and medication can help a person regain control over their emotions and stop feeling unnecessary fear – but the exact effectiveness is never guaranteed.

Anxiety is quite common, affecting over 40 million Americans. That’s 18 percent of the US population, nearly one fifth of the country. Those struggling with anxiety are at risk of developing other related mental disorders, and they’re at risk of maladaptive behavior – things like substance abuse, or reckless behavior.  

Fear and Obsession

Another form of anxiety is an obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD. Unlike what pop culture might have you believe, seeing a tile out of place isn’t exactly an OCD-trigger – at least not for most people. OCD is a disorder wherein you’re trapped in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. An obsession is an intrusive thought, just like anxiety – one that triggers an extreme feeling of discomfort, paranoia or even terror. Compulsions are behaviors used to soothe that feeling and combat or decrease the obsession – they’re a sort of reactive self-medication, a form of therapy many patients suffering from obsessive thoughts use to get away from them.

An OCD diagnosis is met when a person’s obsessions and compulsions become so extreme that they go from a harmless quirk to an obtrusive and difficult lifelong obstacle, taking precedence over work, friendships, and life in general.

OCD’s relation to fear and anxiety is the nature of the obsession, which is a triggering thought coming out of nowhere producing feelings of terror. Instead of running away from the threat, OCD patients deal with their obsession through their chosen compulsion, be it counting the number of times they brush their teeth, the number of times they close a door or some other ritual.

Fear is useful. Just like pain, wishing for all your fear to go away isn’t really in your best interest. Fear isn’t just fearing something – it’s basically reacting optimally to a danger you can’t totally identify. However, when fear becomes just a little too much – when you find yourself struggling in the face of anxiety – that’s when it’s important to know exactly how to overcome and fight back.

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