The Science Behind Fear

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Imagine this: you’re on a 100-foot tall roller coaster, slowly climbing your way to the top. The coaster creaks beneath you as you roll higher and higher. Soon enough, you reach the top, and the coaster stops. Your heart is racing, your breaths are shallow, and you might feel sweaty or even sick. The anticipation is overwhelming as you peer over the edge, looking at the drop below.

When faced with a stressful or dangerous situation, fear is a standard emotional response. As I talk about in chapter five of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, having fears is part of what makes us human.  No matter how unsettling those moments of anxiety can be, we can find comfort in that! The next time you feel afraid, know that you are not alone-everyone experiences fear. It’s what has helped us survive for centuries, and it’s what continues to help us grow into the future.

While overcoming your fears may seem impossible at times, I have found that recognizing the scientific reasons behind fear can help you realize what exactly is going on and tackle it. Keep reading to learn more about the science of fear!

Fear: The Science

While our fears may sometimes seem irrational, there are actually scientific explanations behind why they occur. Understanding the science behind our worries can make our emotional response to them more manageable. Our brain does some crazy things, but when we break them down, the processes are fascinating!

Fear: In the Brain

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Photo credit: Neil Smith, CC-BY-SA-4.0

In our brains, there is a small region called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is involved in releasing hormones, regulating body temperature, and, most relevantly, managing our emotional responses. When something frightens you by threatening your feelings of safety, this region responds by sending chemicals to the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. Think of the hypothalamus as an alarm ringing whenever there is an emergency. It warns your body of possible danger, so other systems can respond accordingly!

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The sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that makes adjustments in our bodies based on changes in our environment. Think of it like a mom in you who tells you to put on a jacket when it gets cold and surveys the area for danger. You’ll see this system in action when you enter a cold room; it’s what causes you to have chills. When the hypothalamus triggers this area, the sympathetic nervous system signals the release of stress hormones like adrenaline. These hormones, in turn, are what cause you to be more tense and alert.

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The adrenal-cortical system is in charge of prodigy hormones that are vital for life. Adrenal glands are what regulate our immune system, metabolism, and stress response. When called upon by the hypothalamus, the adrenal-cortical system secretes hormones to different parts of the body, causing pupils to dilate, blood pressure to increase, and heart rate to increase. This also causes other bodily systems (like digestion and immune) to pause to dedicate more energy to the current emergency.

In a way, the adrenal-cortical system is like the government dolling out funds. The government gives funds to things like hospitals and fire departments in order to keep communities safe. If a crisis occurs in one community – say a state is badly affected by a winter storm – the government will then reallocate funds so that more money goes to that state and their emergency response teams. That money has to be taken from somewhere, though, which is similar to how energy is taken away from digestion and immune systems during fearful situations and is put into more relevant ones.

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Additionally, during this process, the dopamine hormone is released. Among other things, dopamine is responsible for you feeling happy. This release is why some people get excited and thrilled from being in fearful situations, like while riding a roller coaster or watching a horror movie!

Fear: Fight or Flight Response

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These processes combined explain why our bodies react to frightening situations in the way they do, as portrayed by the infographic above! The different systems act this way to ensure our safety and survival and prepare us for what is known as the fight or flight response.

When faced with a stressful or dangerous situation, our brain’s response is either to fight back against the source of fear or try to flee from it. Think of this example: When an animal is being chased or threatened, it will likely try to escape to safety first. However, if it becomes cornered or trapped, it will probably lash back.

Going through the fight or flight response is a standard response to fear. While for humans, this response may look a bit different than for animals, the purpose behind it is the same: to ensure your survival.

Fear: The Importance

In movies, we often see characters wanting to be “fearless.” These superheroes seem like they can do anything and leave us audience members wishing to be just like them. I know I sure did, but over time, I’ve learned that fear is just a fundamental emotion and  it itself is nothing to be scared of. It’s what keeps us protected and ready for whatever life throws at us. We may not be where we are today without it!

Fear and Human Evolution

Throughout evolution, fear has been essential to human and animal survival. To survive, we need to be able to recognize threats to our safety and respond appropriately. In other words, we need to be afraid enough so that the systems discussed above can follow through. To be able to react appropriately, our hypothalamus needs to trigger our adrenal-cortical system, and then the adrenal-cortical system needs to tell specific bodily systems to pause. That way, all our energy can be dedicated to the emergency at hand.

This process was vital for our ancestors. Thousands of years ago, they needed to be more cautious of the wild predators they shared an environment with. An encounter with many of these predators could be deadly, so it was important that our ancestors stayed afraid and avoided those situations. Their “fearfulness” has been key to the growth of human evolution and is the reason we are here now!

Fear Today

Today, we are not as concerned about a wild animal attack in our daily lives (well, at least if you’re not in, say, Alaska fighting bears). However, fear is still important to us! It’s what drives us to perform well on a test or be cautious of our surroundings when we enter a new environment.

However, a little fear isn’t always a bad thing! Over time, we’ve learned that not every fear is of equal value to us. While fear is important, we can not let it overwhelm us and keep us from functioning in our daily activities. Picking up on stresses and dealing with them accordingly helps us overcome obstacles and keep us on our path to our dreams.

How To Manage Fear

To reach our dreams, we need to learn how to manage the fears and obstacles that stand in our way. We’ll be able to live more fulfilling and successful lives when some less-than-important worries do not hold us back. Yet, this is not easy! It is human nature to be afraid in stressful situations. So, we need to practice two things: inward reflection and outward action.

Inward Reflection

To manage our fears, we first need to reflect inwardly on what exactly makes us afraid. Don’t hide from the fact that you have fears – fears are what makes us human! Instead, determine where they come from. Why are you afraid, and how are those fears impacting you as you chase your dreams? Take quiet time to analyze when you’ve been afraid and think hard about the reasons behind it.

Outward Action

Once you know where your fears come from, you can take steps to limit their source. What modifications can you make in your life? Emotions are a unique and personal experience; you need to make changes that work best for you. This could be changing your work schedule, limiting your interactions with a certain group of people, or even just practicing simple self-care habits. By prioritizing your wellbeing, you’ll feel calmer and more comfortable when facing your fears.

Remember, the goal isn’t to become fearless. The goal is to become friends with our fears so they don’t hold us back from success. A lot of anxiety is tied to “what will happen if ___.” By trying something, you’ll know what it is like and be less afraid for the next time! As time goes on, you’ll get more comfortable with that worry.  For example, when I went skydiving for the first time I definitely felt a bit of fear looking out of the plane and seeing how far up we were! But after jumping and seeing what it was like, I’ll be much more comfortable next time as I’ll know what to expect.

Using Fear For Success

When we break fear down, it is much less intimidating! By having a better understanding of fear, its importance, and how to manage it, we’ll overcome our apprehensions, accomplish our goals, and be on our way to success.

If you want to learn more about dealing with your fears and handling them in a way that you can still accomplish your dreams, check out my new book, Dream Big!: How to Reach For Your Stars. In it, I share my advice on how to achieve your goals and provide even more helpful tools like motivations, worst-case scenarios, growth mindset, visualizing, and more  to make friends with your fears!

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