The How Fear works.


How does fear work?

Fear is one of the most interesting emotions that a person could have. Although it’s an emotion, it triggers a physical response more intense than almost any other emotion a person could have. When a person becomes scared or is fearful, their heart generally starts to race, they may start to sweat, and their breathing often becomes heavier. Not to mention that your hands may suddenly feel very clammy and you may also feel as though every goose bump on your body is visible from your head to your toes. But what is fear and what causes it? Why do we sometimes know that it’s just a tree banging against the door and other times we’re convinced that someone’s trying to break into the house?

Fear, like any other emotion that we have, is a signal that the brain has sent that we are in danger. It begins with an outside stimulus, such as the tree banging against the door, and this stimulus triggers the fight-or-flight response in the brain. There are a million stimuli that could trigger the fear reaction and one of the most interesting things about fear is that for every person, there are a million different things that they fear. And although these stimuli may be different for every person, the reaction in the brain is the same. The brain is a very complex organ, one that is responsible for just about everything we do but one of the differences with fear is that it’s an autonomic response, meaning that you don’t need to trigger it within the brain. Unlike other responses, such as walking, the fear response in the brain that makes us feel scared is an autonomic response. This means that you don’t need to consciously trigger the fear response, it will happen as soon as outside stimulus scares you. Another most interesting thing about fear and the response within the brain is that often, you won’t even realize how scared you were until the whole ordeal is over.

There are many different parts of the brain that play a part in triggering the fear response however, research has shown that there are 5 main parts in the brain that participate in the fear response. These are: the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that will determine where to send incoming sensory data, such as from the eyes, skin, or mouth; the sensory cortex, which reads the sensory data; the hippocampus, which stores memories and is able to retrieve them later. The hippocampus also creates stimuli so that context can be established. This means that if the door is banging against your door at night, the hippocampus will be able to determine that it’s a very windy night and that you noticed the tree branch was loose last time. This will lead to the conclusion that there’s nothing to be afraid of because it’s just a tree branch. The amygdale then will interpret the emotion, identify possible threats, and then will store that fear into the brain’s fear memory. The hypothalamus then will activate the fight-or-flight response, which will determine whether you run or stay to protect yourself. This may seem like a very basic course of events that takes place in the brain but there are actually 2 different routes that your body can take to trigger the fear response.

Making Fear

When the brain creates the fear response, there are 2 different paths that are taken. The first road is called the low road and while it’s short and sweet, it can also be quite messy and without the high road, which is the other path the brain takes in the fear response. The low road takes the fastest and easiest way to get you out of danger and the theory behind this is that the signal is telling the brain to ‘take no chances.’ With the low road, the body comes into contact with a stimulus, such as the door banging against the frame, and sends this information to the thalamus. The thalamus at this point doesn’t know whether or not the stimulus is actually a danger and so just passes the signal on to the hypothalamus, telling it to initiate the fight-or-flight response. The low road, while fast, doesn’t take any other possibilities into consideration and if this was the only response in the brain, would leave you acting irrationally most of the time. That’s why signals from stimulus also follow a high road.

The high road in the brain follows a much more logical and rational path. Instead of simply sensing the stimuli and initiating the fear response, the brain will look at all the options and decide whether or not the stimulus actually needs to be feared. Once you have seen (or heard, or felt) the stimulus, your brain will still send it to the thalamus, just as it does with the low road. However, the thalamus will send it to the sensory cortex, which it does not do along the path of the low road. The sensory cortex then determines that there’s more than one possible explanation for the stimulus and the sensory cortex will then send the signal along to the hippocampus. The hippocampus then puts the stimulus into context by determining if it recognizes the stimulus from fear memory and if so, also determining what the stimulus meant at that time. The hippocampus also takes into consideration surrounding stimuli to determine if these could also be related to the original stimuli that stimulated the response in the first place. If the original stimuli were something banging against the door frame, the hippocampus could also determine that there are other stimuli such as the sound of wind blowing or the sound of raindrops against the window. The hippocampus is really the integral part of the high road because it is the area that brings reason and rationale into the situation and it doesn’t act suddenly. Once the hippocampus determines that there is no cause for fear, it will send this message to the amygdala and this will in turn, send the message to the hypothalamus to shut off the fight-or-flight response.

Even though there are two different paths that can be taken by the brain when we encounter fearful stimuli, they both start at the same time. When we first hear the door banging, we both become fearful and start to think about reasons at the same time. However, the low road is much shorter and takes much less time for the brain to process than the high road. This is the reason why when we first hear the door banging, we panic. We may freeze for a second or two and then decide to check the door to see if it is a tree branch, with no fear that there will be a burglar at the door. In both cases however, the signal of the stimuli still ends up at the hypothalamus, the part that triggers the fight-or-flight response. This is also an extremely important part of the fear process because it is this decision that really could save your life in a dangerous situation.

The fight-or-flight response is as fascinating as it is important. Once the hypothalamus receives the signal, two systems will become activated. These are the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. The sympathetic nervous system is the part that causes your body to physically react the way it does when you feel as though you may be in danger. Your heart speeds up, your muscles become tense and you feel very alert. Your blood pressure will begin to rise and you will start to think about acting. This is why when you feel as though you are in danger, you begin to think of ways to get out of it – and very quickly! This physical reaction is caused to stress hormones that the sympathetic nervous system sends out when it is activated.

The other system that’s activated during the fight-or-flight response is the adrenal-cortical system and it is this system that starts to get the body prepared to deal with danger. This system is activated by the hypothalamus which releases the hormone corticotropin-factor (CPF) into the pituitary gland, which ultimately activates the adrenal-cortical system. The pituitary gland then releases the hormone adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) hormone. This hormone races through the bloodstream and activates the secretion of 30 more different hormones. These hormones get the body ready to deal with the danger. Once these hormones are released, several changes start to occur in the body. Not only do your heart rate and blood pressure increase but your pupils will also dilate so that they’ll be able to take in as much light as possible; the veins in the skin will tighten up so that they can send more blood to the major muscles, which is why some people become cold when they are especially scared. Your blood sugar level will also rise and the muscles will tense up, which is when goose bumps become present. Other muscles however will relax so that you can take more air into your lungs and systems such as the immune and digestion system, will also shut down so that the body can give energy to the other systems that need it. Also when you’re very scared, you will most likely be unable to concentrate on small things because your brain and body will be so focused on getting out of the dangerous situation. All of these physical responses are the body’s way of preparing you for fight-or-flight and it’s an instinct that every animal has.

Why Fear is Important

It may seem that fear is an undesirable emotion and while most people don’t enjoy being scared, fear is a very important emotion. It keeps us from doing dangerous things, such as walking out into traffic or taking a hot dish out of the stove without an oven mitt. Humans however the advantage (or disadvantage) of hearing about things and seeing things that we have never experienced for ourselves. We may fear these situations even though we have never experienced them for ourselves. This is why many people are terrified to board an airplane even though they have never been in a plane crash, or even on a plane for that matter! These are non-conditioned fears, meaning that they are common fears that many people have, and for very good reason. It only takes one plane crash to end your life and while not common, they are certainly not unheard of either. However, there are also conditioned fears, which are specific to one person and usually, because of a very specific reason. For example, a person may have had a bad fall off their bike when they were five and were too terrified to ever get on a bike again because they associate the action with the fear memory. Conditioned fears can also come from things that you may have never experienced. A child may find common house spiders and bugs very interesting but when they see their mother constantly becoming stressed and panicked every time she sees one, they begin to associate spiders with this reaction. Over time, they may become just as frightened of spiders as their parent is simply because they’ve seen the stimuli linked to the response so many times.


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