Fear exists in an area of our brain called the amygdala. This part of our brain is the primary emotional centre. When fear activates in our brain, a few mechanisms kick into action, while some others deactivate. Our pre-frontal cortex drastically drops off in function; this stops us from utilising rational thought. The sympathetic nervous system engages which leads to our adrenal glands releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Our eyes lubricate and pupils dilate. Our heart rate will increase, and our stomach and digestion will shut down. Blood will be pumped into your extremities (arms and legs) and muscles.
This process can be referred to as the four F's; fight, flight, freeze, or faint.
As the names suggest this is preparing you to fight off a threat.
(e.g. Someone is attacking you and you have to physically defend yourself and attack back.)
If the threat is too great then you will need to escape as quickly as possible.
(e.g. You’re being chased by a predator.)
If the threat is particularly dangerous then it may require you to freeze so you're unable to move. This will help you remain unseen, or appear as if you’re not a threat.
(e.g. you get a little too close for comfort to a snake)
Lastly, another component of freezing is to immobilise yourself so much that you can’t possibly move and you faint. Possibly appearing as if you’re dead.
(e.g. You’re being attacked by a predator that you can’t possibly defeat or escape from, fear and the general stimulus will be so great that you'll pass out.)
Of course all of these are unconscious processes and you don't have much control over them, if any.
Fear serves a purpose. Simplest put, fear is a physical and mental response to danger. Any perceived threat or danger should trigger the fear response (the four F's).
Inside the amygdala, anxiety and fear are identical.
The difference is anxiety is irrational fear. It's a misfiring within the brain and there is no real danger. However, the brain is behaving as though there is a dangerous threat, but consciously the person knows everything is fine. This is why anxiety is so confusing to the sufferer.
When it comes to emotional responses, our brain doesn’t actually know the difference between what is real, fake, and imagined.
· Real - This is our emotional response to an actual threat in the real world.
· Fake - We can have a similar emotional response from an artificial stimulus. e.g. from watching a movie or reading a book.
· Imagined – We can emotionally respond to our mental images or thoughts e.g. to a dream, fantasy, or imagination.
Anxiety may have had some actual evolutionary advantages. When it comes to our early ancestors, those who were more anxious were potentially more likely to survive. This is because they’d be more likely to see a threat, to respond to possible threats, and be more vigilante in dangerous situations.
The same anxious mechanism still exists in our brain today. This is potentially why young children see 'things' moving in the dark. They see monsters, they hear predators, they see things moving in the shadows, and sometimes even monster under the bed. As adults we know the shadows aren't full of predators, but our early ancestors had plenty of reasons to be anxious. Any wrong step could see them injured or killed, the more anxious someone was then the more likely they were to survive.
It’s better for our ancestors to see a predator in the shadows and be wrong, then to see nothing in the shadows and potentially be blind to a predator.
It may all seem hopeless and it's impossible to beat such a powerful mechanism of our own brain, but there are many treatment options: psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, counselling, and medication.
Even psycho-education can play an important part to understanding and relieving our anxieties.
For more information please visit the EH Therapy website
Clinical psychotherapist and hypnotherapist