Exploring Emotions: Fear

fear little boy hiding in cushions

Fear: The Role of Fear

This blog is part of our series on understanding and managing difficult emotions – Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust. The first of the four emotions we are going to explore is fear. Fear has had a vital role in our development as a species. Fearlessness is not good for a species’s survival. It is an emotion that signals to us the presence of a danger or threat in our environment, prompting us to take action. In our own evolution as a species those who survived were not just the strongest or the fastest. But those whose threat detection and fear response helped them to survive the danger. Though nowadays we don’t really face the same dangers as our ancestors. Like crossing paths with a lion on our way to hunt for food or gather water, we do still face danger. And our fear response is just the same – kicking in to charge us up with adrenaline and preparing us to fight the danger, or flee from it and ensure our survival.

The Physiology of Fear

Fear has had a vital role in our development and it’s expressed by our facial expressions and our body’s posture, the intensity of which will depend on the level of fear we are experiencing at the time. Fear typically manifests in our facial expressions in the form of slightly raised eyebrows (if there is also a surprise element, if not, then there may be a furrowed brow). The lower eyelids are generally tense, and the mouth will open about halfway. Slouching is also a manifestation of fear (and anxiety) and happens to make ourselves smaller. More bodily expressions include clenched fists or crossed arms. This serves as a protective barrier.

  Fear, like any other emotion, is natural and shouldn’t be judged. It begins when we are faced with a danger. What happens next is the activation, or ‘turning on’, of an internal mechanism that informs our physiology to be alert. The message it sends to the body is that we should proceed with caution. When we enter a state of fear, our sympathetic nervous system is activated generating very fast energy in the body. This happens so  we can rise to the challenge. We can take whatever action it is that needs to be taken to face or get away from danger and survive.

Our Response to Fear

Our response to fear starts in a region of the brain known as the amygdala. This is known as “the danger detector glands”. These recognise something that stands out as something in our environment to be concerned about. Fear has had a vital role in our development. For example, when there is a threat stimulus, like a dangerous animal running toward us or the sight of a stranger in a dark alley, a fear response is triggered in the amygdala. This response in turn triggers the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, and signals to our sympathetic nervous system to activate motor functions that we need to use – to fight or to flee. 

The activation of our sympathetic nervous system results in physiological changes in the body. This changes to make us more alert and efficient in escaping danger. Our brains become more alert, our pupils dilate and our breathing gets faster. Our heart rate rises, as does our blood pressure. Blood flow increases and it shifts from the brain and the digestive track to the big peripheric muscles in the arms and legs, along with the flow of glucose to our muscles, which we will need in the fighting or the fleeing, and other organs that are not essential in escaping danger slow down. Now the necessary organs and muscles get the energy they need.

There is another part of the brain involved in a human’s fear response, and is known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is concerned with fear memories and learning, are responsible for the regulation of our emotional responses. In the case of fear, it is our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex that evaluate how dangerous the threat stimulus actually is. Watching a horror film, for example, is a scary experience, but it is not life threatening at all. The hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex know that the source of your fear is not much of an actual threat, so they inhibit, or dampen, the amygdala’s fear response.

Why do we feel fear even when we are safe?

You may be wondering why we sometimes feel fear when there is no threat in the environment. Why is it that even though I know I’m safe, my body is reacting to my environment as if I’m in danger, with sweaty palms, rapid breathing, and an elevated heart rate? To understand this, we must first look at the Social Engagement System, an idea developed by Dr.Stephen Porges. Porges claims that in our threat response, there are four stages. The top of this conceptual ladder is where we want to be – Social Engagement. In this stage, we are engaged with others. As cynical as it may sound, as animals we do this to ensure our place in the tribe.

If we are not the fastest or the strongest, then being friends with the fastest or the strongest is going to benefit us. Underneath this rung of the ladder is vigilance. This is a state of hyper awareness of the environment where we are on alert for any potential danger. Below this is the fight/flight response, where the amygdala kickstarts our sympathetic nervous system and we are ready to fight or to flee the danger. Finally, if the danger is too much to process, our threat response hits a sort of red-line and can’t go on, so instead we freeze, or become paralysed. In humans, this can also be seen in the form of dissociation, where our conscious mind leaves the overwhelming present.

So when we feel fear in the present moment, but there is no apparent threat, it’s likely because that freeze is still happening, and has been triggered by something in our environment. Such a state will persist intermittently until the original threat, or ‘unfinished business’ has been dealt with.

Managing Fear

When it comes to managing fear, there are a number of things that can help. The first is psychoeducation. Educating yourself on fear, or any emotion or psychological state, is essential in dealing with it. Fear has had a vital role in our development. Once we know more about what fear is, we come to an understanding, and accept that it’s a normal, natural emotion. If you don’t understand what it is and what is happening within the body, then it’s likely that you will feel more fear, stemming from a sense of confusion and a feeling of loss of control. Education on the subject can help you to make more sense of the emotional experience, which in turn will return a feeling of at least some control. 

Know that fear arises, and fear passes. In the meantime, it helps to stay present in your body and manage your breathing. This may be easier said than done, but with practice it becomes easier, and the practice is worth it. We mentioned earlier how our fear response results in the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (Fight and Flight). When we practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing, we send a message to our body to increase the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)(Rest Digest Repair). Unlike the SNS, the PNS is responsible for rest and digestion. By activating it, we reduce the intensity of our fear response and return to a more normal, balanced state.

Get in touch

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling with emotions and how to manage them, or equally can’t find the right help for any form of mental health issue, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours)