Mind Help

Fear

Fear is an unpleasant emotion which arises due to anticipated threats and makes us aware of perceived dangers. It is a normal reaction and a basic survival mechanism.


What Is Fear?

It is a basic human emotion and a mental state caused by perceived threats to our safety and health. Fear is wired to function as a survival instinct in our nervous system. This biochemical emotional response plays a vital role as it makes us alert about possible dangers and threats in our environment by triggering the fight or flight response to help us better prepare and survive. “Fear can be defined as the neurophysiological processes that prepare an organism to perform innate or learned responses to cope with danger,” states a 2015 study 1 . The researchers also observed that the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA 2 ) plays an important role. Most of us tend to experience this natural and normal emotion several times during the course of our lives. The intensity 3 and duration of this emotion may vary from person to person depending on the perceived threat and danger. However, when experienced constantly or frequently, it can lead to the development of intense, irrational fear or phobias that can have severe physical and mental health effects. It is associated with different mental health conditions such as anxiety, phobias, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) etc. Not only can it impair a person’s ability to function normally in daily life, it can also affect their education, work, relationships and happiness.

According to a 2002 study 4 , fear is a psychological construct that can be defined as “a motivational state aroused by specific stimuli that give rise to defensive behavior or escape.” We generally become afraid of people, places or situations that have acted as a source of stress, anxiety or pain previously. As a result, when we are reintroduced to or re-experience a similar or same situation, we engage in avoidance behavior due to our fight or flight response. All animals and humans experience fear as an inherent reaction to specific stimuli, like sudden, loud noises. However, we can also learn new fears when encountering certain objects in situations that can induce terror. Common instances where a person may feel afraid may include, flying, being in the dark, public speaking, aggression or violence, rejection, confrontation etc.

Understanding Fear

Fears and phobias typically develop in the amygdala 5, a collection of cells in the brain, which regulates intense emotions. When a specific object, situation or experience activates a fearful response, our amygdala sends a warning signal by triggering the fight, flight or freeze response everytime we experience a similarly frightening situation or object. The brain instantly sends signals to activate our nervous system whenever we perceive danger. As a result, certain physical reactions may occur such as high blood pressure, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat etc. Muscles become activated with enhanced blood circulation as our body prepares to fight or run away while sweating occurs to maintain the body temperature. Our body can remain in this alert mode until our brain perceives that the threat or danger has passed and that we are safe. Fear can also be triggered by sudden and unexpected sensations, like someone touching us from the back without our knowledge or a loud sound. However, in most cases such situations are not necessarily threatening.

According to a 2017 study 6 , fear can be either innate or acquired through conditioning. It is typically triggered due to a stimulus which predicts the presence of an immediate danger. The role of this emotion is to prepare our body to effectively “face” the threat. However, when fear processing becomes dysfunctional, it can cause various psychiatric disorders leading to abnormal or unreasonable fear-avoidance behaviors. “It appears that the amygdala is central to two phenomena that may support pathological innate fear: fear sensitization (with decreased amygdala threshold activity and potentiation of amygdala activity) and failure of fear habituation (with decreased amygdala habituation),” adds the study. Fear sensitization mechanisms can influence the reduction of amygdala habituation.

Signs And Symptoms Of Fear

As each of us experience fear in our own unique way, the experience and the intensity can be different for most of us. However, there are some common emotional and physical symptoms, which include the following –

1. Emotional symptoms

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loss of control
  • Anxiety
  • Upset
  • Feelings of dread
  • Sense of impending doom

Read More About Anxiety Here

2. Physical symptoms

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Digestive issues
  • Chills or sweating
  • Trembling, twitching or muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea, dizziness or fainting
  • Dry mouth
  • Temporary paralysis
  • Headache or stomach ache
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stuttering

Causes Of Fear

As mentioned earlier, fear is a survival mechanism and a reaction to perceived threat which leads to increased adrenaline levels and makes us alert & aware. According to a 2015 study 7 , it enables us to become defensive, through a process known as “defense cascade.” Not only does it activate the flight or fight defense response for coping with a threat or danger, it also activates the “freeze” response 8 or immobility which can be a desperate reaction in the face of an inescapable threat. “Each of these defense reactions has a distinctive neural pattern mediated by a common neural pathway: activation and inhibition of particular functional components in the amygdala, hypothalamus, periaqueductal gray, and sympathetic and vagal nuclei,” adds the study. It is an automatic and evolutionary tool which is important for our survival.

Certain fears can develop due to unpleasant experiences, while at other times we may develop phobias due to our mindset and personality traits, such as being highly sensitive. It can also be due to certain genetic predispositions 9 as well. Moreover, childhood experiences and anxiety can also play an important role. “Adult twin studies found substantial interplay between genetic and environmental factors influencing fear disorders (phobias) and anxiety disorders,” reveals a 2019 study 10 . However, fear can also be a rather personal experience as well as some individuals may seek to feel this emotion as a fun experience, such as engaging in extreme sports or watching horror movies. One 2019 study 11 found that “there is a positive relationship between sensation-seeking and horror enjoyment/preference,” and that low empathy & fearfulness are linked with a stronger desire and higher enjoyment of horror movies. However, some others may desperately avoid situations that induce fear. In fact, the study found that women tend to be more likely to have disgust sensitivity or anxiety than men.

Another 2013 research paper 12 explains that “Fear can be caused by a wide range of stimuli, from basic unconditioned stimuli to complex symbolic knowledge; and it can in turn trigger core biological responses as well as be modulated volitionally, at least in humans.”

How Fear Works

When we become aware of potential dangers, our body prepares us to react appropriately to the threats to ensure our survival by releasing certain hormones. These hormones help to –

  • Make us more alert and aware of our surroundings.
  • Enhance functions, like our hearing and eyesight, to help us survive.
  • Prepare the body for fight or flight by increasing blood flow to muscles, increasing heart rate etc.
  • Shut down or regulate certain functions that are not essential for immediate survival, like the digestive system.
  • Increase focus and improve memory by releasing hormones into the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain.

A substantial body of evidence 13 reveals that the amygdala plays a crucial role in processing 14 fear. In case of a perceived threat, the amygdala sends signals to the brain to make the other brain regions more alert. It is also important for other aspects of fear processing, such as fear recognition, fear conditioning, regulation of attention & memory for threat-related stimuli and the control of fear-related behaviors. “Brain imaging studies show that masked facial stimuli activate the amygdala as do masked pictures of threatening animals such as snakes and spiders,” states a 2005 study 15 . However, when the amygdala dysfunctions, we may often be unable to experience fear as the brain is unable to register and process potential dangers. According to a 2010 study 16 , “humans with amygdala damage have abnormal fear reactions and a reduced experience of fear.”

How Fear Affects Us

Chronic fear can have some serious adverse effects and lead to severe health issues. Some of them are mentioned below.

1. Physical effects

Being constantly afraid and alert can significantly damage the immune system 17 , fasten the ageing process and lead to premature death. It can also lead to various diseases like gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular issues and reduced fertility.

2. Psychological effects

Chronic stress 18 , anxiety and fear can leave a strong negative impact on someone’s mental health. Not only can it impair their ability for daily functioning, it can also lead to exhaustion, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Apart from these, there are several other complications and consequences associated with chronic fear, such as –

  • Dysfunction in immune and endocrine system
  • Impairments in long-term memory formations
  • Affects thinking and decision-making
  • Changes in autonomic nervous system
  • Issues in hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis
  • Issues with emotion regulations, reactivity and reading non-verbal cues
  • Chronic pain, fibromyalgia and asthma
  • Disruptions in sleep/wake cycle
  • Eating disorders
  • Phobic anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive thoughts
  • Mood swings
  • Learned helplessness
  • Dissociation or disconnection from one’s thoughts
  • Inability to experience positive emotions
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion & bitterness
  • Distrust
  • Loss of spirituality

Moreover, chronic fear can also impair our ability to learn by altering perception of sensory information and storage due to hyper-arousal.

Read More About Paranoia Here

Fear And Mental Disorders

Research 19 shows that fear and anxiety can lead to serious psychological distress. Studies 20 have also found that fears and specific phobias are related to impairments and can lead to the development of different mental disorders. In fact, fear is closely associated with anxiety 21 and anxiety disorders, such as social phobia or social anxiety 22 . When feeling concerned and anxious about certain future events, we often feel worried and afraid. Moreover, individuals experiencing paranoia 23 , delusions 24 or hallucinations 25 can also experience severe forms of fear. “Hallucinations, which are experienced in fear-evoking situations of helplessness and (external) danger, are attempts of defence and the realisation of elementary needs of self-preservation and security,” explains a study 26 . Moreover, experiencing negative emotions and mood frequently can also make someone afraid of negative experiences, such as loss of a loved one, failure, unemployment, divorce etc. Studies 27 show that high levels of fear in adolescence can act as predictors of major depression episodes.

Apart from these, some other psychiatric conditions may also be associated with this survival mechanism, such as –

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD 28 )
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD 29 )
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Schizophrenia 30
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Paranoia
  • Psychopathology 31

A person experiencing chronic fear may also develop specific phobias, which refers to an irrational and unreasonable fear of a certain object, animal, place or situation and is characterized by avoidance behavior. Phobias are often disproportionate to the real or perceived threat.

Read More About Post traumatic stress disorder Here

When To See A Doctor

Although specific phobias are considered as anxiety disorders 32 , fear is not recognized as a mental disorder. Hence, there is no specific diagnosis for this emotion and mental state. However, if you are experiencing high levels of chronic fear and if it is affecting your daily activities, then visiting a doctor or a therapist may help. A doctor may perform a few lab tests and physical examinations to determine if your anxiety and persistent fear is caused by any underlying conditions. They may also conduct a psychological evaluation and a generic interview to gain a better understanding of your thoughts, emotions and symptoms. They may also check your medical and family history as well. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, the doctor may recommend treatment for a phobia or anxiety if the diagnosis criteria are met.

Treatment Of Fear

There is no specific treatment for fear, however a doctor may suggest certain treatment approaches for specific phobias involving systematic desensitization and flooding. Research 33 shows that exposure therapy can be highly effective in treating anxiety, fears and phobias as repeatedly exposing the patient to their fear-inducing stimuli in a controlled setting can lead to familiarity and a decrease in fear response. Studies 34 also reveal that exposure therapy can prove to be even more beneficial when used in combination with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in treating phobias. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that enables the sufferer to identify their negative thoughts, emotions and behavior and replace them with more positive ones. One 2008 study 35 has found that CBT is effective in the treatment for fear.

Apart from therapies, certain medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs 36 ) can also help in reducing symptoms and improving quality of life & functioning significantly. However, as there can be certain side-effects associated with medications, it is best to consult a doctor or a licensed mental health professional for effective and safe treatment.

How To Overcome Fear

The most effective way to overcome your fear is to face it gradually and become desensitized to it under the guidance of a trained therapist. However, apart from therapy and medications, there are certain steps that you can take to conquer your anxiety and fear. Here are a few coping strategies that can be helpful:

1. Pause

Often chronic anxiety can cloud our thoughts and judgments leading to panic attacks. Take some time out and focus on calming yourself down, both mentally and physically. Take a shower, breathe, eat your favorite food or simply go for a walk.

2. Don’t engage in avoidance behaviors

Fear makes us avoid the feared stimuli or situation in order to protect ourselves. However, this can significantly limit our potential as typically our reaction to the stimuli is much greater than the perceived or actual threat. This is why it is crucial that you learn to expose yourself to your phobias in a safe manner after properly analyzing the situation. However, make sure to be kind and gentle with yourself instead of forcing yourself to face whatever you are afraid of. The key is taking small and measured steps towards facing chronic fears.

3. Develop a positive mindset

Cultivate positive emotions within yourself by shifting your mindset away from negativity. Be aware of negative thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that reinforce your fears and replace them with positive thoughts. One way to do this is by practicing gratitude. Appreciate what you have in your life currently, no matter how small, and be thankful for it. This will help you develop a positive mindset and expand your perspective to make you more resilient.

4. Practice relaxation techniques

According to a recent 2020 study 37 , “Relaxation techniques are therapeutic exercises designed to assist individuals with decreasing tension and anxiety, physically and psychologically.” Practicing different types of relaxation techniques 38 , such as deep breathing or box breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga and mindfulness meditation 39 can help you control your negative thoughts and emotions and overcome panic to reduce fear.

5. Practice self-love

Loving yourself and showing kindness and compassion to yourself is crucial when it comes to overcoming fear. Instead of minimizing your phobias, traumas, emotional pains and past experiences, acknowledge them and let them pass naturally. Accept yourself as you are and allow yourself to heal from past traumas. Give yourself the time necessary to get over your fears and be compassionate. Eventually you will be able to gradually expose yourself to unpleasant situations and become familiar with it.

Read More About Self-Love Here

6. Go to your happy place

Mentally create a safe and happy place that helps you calm down inside your mind. Simply close your eyes and imagine a place where you are free from your fears. It can be a valley or a beach or even your own bedroom from your childhood. Visualizing such a safe and comfortable place inside your mind will enable you to stay calm and nurture positive emotions. Studies 40 have found that “Mental imagery can increase engagement in planned behaviours, potentially due to its special role in representing emotionally salient experiences.”

7. Spend some time in nature

Research 41 shows that spending time in locations with natural beauty can lead to a “ greater sense of happiness.” The researchers found that people can feel happy not just in natural environments, but also in built-up areas with adequate green spaces. So if you feel overwhelmed due to your fears, then make sure to take a walk in your local park as it can boost positive feelings and reduce stress and anxiety. A recent study 42 has revealed that “people who move to greener urban areas benefit from sustained improvements in their mental health.”

8. Have a healthier lifestyle

Make sure to follow a healthy diet rich in protein, vegetables and fruits. It is best to avoid sugary foods as it can affect your blood sugar levels. You should make sure to avoid consuming too much caffeine or tea as it can boost your anxiety levels. Moreover, you must also stay away from drinking too much alcohol, smoking or taking recreational drugs as these may lead to hallucinations and delusions causing irrational fears. Further, getting adequate sleep everyday and exercising daily can be of great help as well. According to a 2018 study 43 , exercise is considered as “a viable treatment option for the treatment of anxiety.”

9. Seek support

Talk about your fears openly and honestly with trusted loved ones, friends, family members, teachers or a partner. Talking can help you express yourself better and gain a different perspective that is grounded more in reality. It will also help you avoid isolation and loneliness and get the help you may need. You may also reach out to your local support groups or seek support in online mental health groups. If you need to, feel free to talk to a mental health professional or a counselor.

Takeaway

Fear is a normal and important emotion and response that helps us stay alive by being aware of threats. However, it can often lead to persistent anxiety and phobia which can be devastating for some. Seeking therapy and implementing coping strategies can help you live a fuller and less limiting life. Facing your fears can not only enable you to experience adrenaline rush but also enable you to gain self-control over your thoughts and emotions.

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