Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat.
It is a survival mechanism that signals our body to respond to danger in fight or flight mode. The term ‘fight-or-flight’ represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment. They could either fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress and fear prepared their body to react to the danger. Fear is an essential part in keeping us safe.
However, in today’s modern world, as much as we aren’t fearful of getting eaten by a lion like our ancestors were, we are subjected to so much more fear through media, negative thinking, and stresses that our ancestors didn’t have to worry about.
So How Does Fear Work?
Fear prepares us to react to danger. Our brains can’t distinguish the difference between imagination or reality. So, every time you have a thought, it releases the same neurochemicals regardless of whether you are thinking about the past, the present, or the future. Therefore, in reality, you don’t need to be actually experiencing fear physically, you just need to be thinking about fear and your body can still have the same physical response.
Think about something that really scares you now and watch your heart race that little bit more. Yep, it’s that simple.
Once we sense a potential danger, our body releases hormones that:
- Slow or shut down functions not needed for survival (such as our digestive system).
- Sharpen functions that might help us survive (such as eyesight). Our heart rate increases, and blood flows to muscles so we can run faster.
Our body also increases the flow of hormones to an area of the brain known as the amygdala to help us focus on the presenting danger and stores this fear in our memory to learn from in the future.
This is great for when we are really in danger, but what if we aren’t? How is this state of fear impacting our health? Uncertainty drives fear and worry, and living in this state of mind can seriously impact our health.
Fear weakens our immune system and can cause gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and IBS, decreased fertility, and cardiovascular damage. It can also lead to accelerated aging and premature death.
Fear also interrupts processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and much more. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately.
In today’s modern world, as much as we aren’t fearful of getting eaten by a lion to so much more fear through media, negative thinking and stresses that our ancestors didn’t have to worry about.
It goes without saying that fear impacts our mental health. Other consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression, and PSTD.
So how can we settle our brains when it goes into fear, and move our bodies out of this state? We need to calm our amygdala down first. There are things you can do to speed up that process and get control of your emotional state.
Things You Can Try
- Name your emotions as you experience them. This helps to engage the thinking part of your brain and trigger mindfulness.
- Take deep breaths from your abdomen. Breathing deeply will help to bring oxygen to the brain and slow you down.
- Draw on mindfulness. Look around you and notice things in the environment. This will help you to move out of your head and back into the situation.
- Take a timeout. If you are truly feeling out of control, excuse yourself from the situation you are in to get a hold of your emotions.
- See your doctor.
- See a councillor or therapist.
- Try EFT (emotional freedom technique).
- Ask your pharmacist about herbs or medications that can calm you.
- Learn meditation.
- Try yoga.
- Go for a walk.