What Everyone Ought To Know About Fear

The Fear Response


You and I are distinctively unique as individuals. We’re each original and have a personal style. Seasoning the covered dish we bring to the potluck dinner of life with our special sauce. But when responding to immediate danger, we’re exactly alike.


Your Sympathetic Nervous System

The sequence of behaviors triggered by fear is common and produces the same physiological responses in all animals. These include the changes that are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. When faced with danger your body’s sympathetic nervous system shifts into overdrive, causing the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to rise and you begin to hyperventilate. Perspiration increases and the skin’s nerve endings tingle, causing goosebumps. Your senses become hyper-alert, freezing you momentarily as you take in every detail. Adrenaline floods your muscles, preparing you to fight or run away. In addition, your brain shifts focus away from digestion to focus on a potential danger.


Fear, Emotions, And Your Amygdala

The sympathetic nervous system is like a circuit board sending signals to a concentrated mass of cells located deep within your brain called the amygdala; The brain’s alarm system. The amygdala allows you to perceive fear, which is a good thing because it heightens your awareness in the face of danger. It’s only about the size of an almond, but it packs a punch. The amygdala is responsible for your emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness, as well as control your aggression. In addition, your memories of events are stored in the amygdala, so you will recognize similar events in the future.


Cracking The Fear Code

But there is a difference between feelings and emotions. As you can see, fear as an emotion is the result of a distinct pattern of neurons signaling neurons. Your feelings are a smoke screen of your conscious mind. They’re the labels you assign to your emotion of fear. There is one more element that makes up the mechanism of fear, your specific memory of the experience. After a scary experience, you can remember what happened, but also you recall how you felt about what happened. Remembering a negative  or painful incident can be very helpful. For example, if you burnt your hands while cooking, you remember to wear an oven mitt.


But prolonged amygdala activity can trigger mood disorders such as, panic, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors. For example, while cooking dinner you ask your son to grab the saucepan sitting on the stove. Without checking to see if the pan is hot, he grabs the pan and winds up with second-degree burns on his arms and hands. An accident like this is any mother’s nightmare. Remember, the initial response of the amygdala is brief. Once the immediate danger is over, (when you sprang spring into action to help your son), the neurons stimulating your amygdala should stop firing. However, this experience was so traumatic that your mind constantly re-enacts the scene. Every time you recall the kitchen memory your sympathetic nervous system prepares you for danger. Eventually, you begin either avoiding the kitchen or cooking. Perhaps you begin a routine of compulsively checking the appliances making sure you  turned all the dials in the kitchen “off”.


Fear: Friend and Foe

You need fear. If you think your life would be better without it, stop. Start re-framing your thoughts by focusing on the reasons the fear response is common to all species. Fear is your friend. Without it you’d tackle any big brown bear in the woods, walk down an alley alone at 2:00 in the morning, or blow-dry your hair in the bathtub. Consider your response to fear is like sustaining physical pain. You only have hit your head with a frying pan one time to know it hurts and you don’t want to relive the experience. Your fear response teaches you a situation may cause you pain. It can save your life or allow you to come to the aid of someone in danger.

Remember This:

  • Fear is an emotion generated by an apparent threat, which temporarily changes the way your brain, organs, and behavior normally operates.
  • Anxiety occurs when you constantly relive the traumatic event and perceive it to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.


Have a banner day!



Helping Brains Relieve Anxiety

A new study suggests a strategy to treat anxiety might be to design drugs that help the brains own regulatory circuitry kick in and tune down hyperactive neurons. The study’s authors focus on a part of the brain that processes fear and other emotions the amygdala. In anxious mice, the researchers found, this region of the brain plays host to an overactive enzyme that disrupts a regulatory signaling system responsible for preventing nerve cells from becoming overexcited. See more…


Related Links:

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

  • Erica

    I remember reading a book some years ago about the difference between humans and animals in dealing with trauma. We are so much more evolved than other animals in certain ways. Unfortunately, we are one of the only animals that carries trauma in quite this way. For instance, my dog is scared of big dogs so when she passes one, she freaks out. Yet as soon as the dog passes, she is happy-go-lucky again. Humans have the ability to sit and think about the past, stressing themselves out over and over. I’ve certainly spend my fair share of time being victim of this. I like that you do point out the benefits of fear, and yes, it is lucky that we know better than to go swimming with polar bears!

  • This is interesting, I never thought about the difference between fear as a response and fear as an emotion. Seems like even knowing that concept could help you work through some of your anxiety by separating the event from the emotions tied to it. Thanks for some great food for thought!

  • Interesting and great Artice Pamela! I think Fear is good sometimes. The issue is overcoming it. Thanks for the clarification of fear and anxiety.

  • Pamela, yes, we do need fear. It’s when it overcomes us with unmitigated anxiety that we need to find a way to calm ourselves down.

  • Phoenicia

    Fear is such a hindrance. It can stop us from leaving the things that we know for much better prospects. Fear sneaks in through the back door and puts negative thoughts in our minds;
    “Can we do it?”
    “What if it does not work?”
    “People will laugh at you”

    As the evangelist Joyce Meyer says;
    “Do it scared”.

  • Catarina Alexon

    Interesting article, Pamela. Often wonder what percentage of refugees from say Syria, Iraq and Gaza can ever get away from a drastic response from their amygdala? Certain sounds will for instance trigger the feeling that they are being bombed again. The same applies to victims of torture.

  • I think many of us think of anxiety and fear the same way – thanks for clarifying that. I agree that fear is our friend – if we didn’t experience fear we would do all those foolhardy things you mentioned, tackling a bear, etc. It is the over abundance of fear that could stifle us. Great post.

  • Great set of images with this post. They tell the story by themselves, beginning with the horrifying “got fear” and concluding with the happy times “fear is your friend.”

  • Mahal Hudson

    I enjoyed reading this Pamela. Fears are limiting beliefs that hinders us to be at our best. I guess we need to get know more about our Amygdala to manage our fears and anxiety…or just let it be…just being part of being human, right!

  • Marquita Herald

    Well written and very informative Pamela. I may be a little more familiar with this subject than some because fear didn’t just run in my family, it galloped. Seriously, name a dysfunction and it was represented among those near and dear. As a result I have always been pretty hard on myself whenever I found myself experiencing fear on any level – relentlessly pushing through it. Not recommended for the faint of heart, but it’s worked for me over the years. Thanks for the great read and inspiration!

  • I normally take anxiety and fear in same way but now I came to know that they are different. When I read the details from the top about how the brain respond to critical conditions and what effects it has on body and mind. I was like.. OMG! our brain is so complex and so many things are happening under our skin all the time and the actions are so quick.
    It is always great if we can control or overcome our fear and make it a friend. It can help in many ways.
    Very informative post Pamela, Thank you!

  • Tim

    If only all responses to decisions we make could go through this type of reactive education; but it is good to view fear this way as I would be easily swayed to do something stupid if I had no understanding of the consequences.

  • Jacqueline Gum

    This was so enlightening Pamela! It is so easy to confuse the fear response with anxiety. And I never thought to view fear in such a positive light. You are right when you say that fear is our friend!