Why Do We Get Scared?

A person who is afraid of the dark
Ella Pilson

Fear. We all hate that deer caught in headlights feeling; as our hearts begin to pound, that icy shiver that descends down our spine or butterfly feeling in the stomach. So, what actually goes on in the brain and what bodily processes take place when we’re scared?

Firstly, the amygdala in our brain receives sensory information from the thalamus about the stimulus being experienced, e.g. the massive spider crawling up your wall! Once this takes place our autonomic nervous system changes from its normal resting state (parasympathetic state) to the alerted sympathetic state, releasing hormones like adrenaline into the bloodstream. This causes the dreaded psychological aspects of the fight or flight response – sweating, nausea, a rapid heart rate and breathing rate, slowed digestion, etc. This doesn’t always have to be negative as seen from the enjoyment we gain while going on roller coasters. Once the perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic system reverses these effects returning you to your normal peaceful self, also known as the ‘rest and digest response’.

Our bodies can also have weird but wonderful responses. According to a new journal published by Psychological Science we can actually smell fear. This explains why a ghost story seems scarier with a room full of people and when mass panics ensue.

When Can Fears Be Useful and How Do They Develop?

Most importantly, it helps us to react quickly in dangerous situations without having to actively think about it. This was more important in our evolutionary past when confronted with unknown dangers providing an instinctual response, e.g. fire. Seligman (1971) uses this to explain why there is a certain commonality to our fears. He called it the ‘Evolutionary Theory of Fear’, where we feel scared of things our ancestors would have avoided such as the dark. Most of our fears are rooted in our childhood or can be influenced by our parents, as the amygdala interacts with the hippocampus in the brain where our episodic memories are stored. This explains why some of our most terrifying childhood fears stick with us to adulthood.

Our childhood is also where most of our fears are learnt 

Our childhood is also where most of our fears are learnt. “The Little Albert Experiment” conducted by Pavlov demonstrates how our fears can be ingrained from a young age through a process known as classical conditioning. He used a small child to show that after repeated pairing of a neutral stimulus with a more threatening event e.g., loud noise, our brains start to associate them together creating our fear response.

Ways to Overcome Fear:

Immediately, that irritatingly useful parental voice enters my mind about facing your fears. It’s true, this is the best way to overcome our fears. As explained by Pavlov’s classical conditioning – in order to stop the negative associations with our fears we need to have positive experiences. But let’s be honest, that’s hard. So rather than avoiding it entirely, here are a few tips to make things a little easier next time you’re face to face with your favourite creepy crawly. The best thing in any situation is not to overthink, as the more fear and anxiety you generate the scarier it becomes. Simple measures you can take involve deep breathing, planning ahead or simply evaluating the risk. Of course, for more extreme fears that have become phobias more intensive measures may need to be taken. For example, systematic desensitisation which gradually exposes people to their fears over time. Furthermore, technological advances are allowing some new and really creative ways to overcome our fears such as virtual reality – this helps to expose someone to their fear without having to be in the situation in real life. One study by Alison Wood also found a correlation between your bodily response to anxiety and excitement – both producing similar physiological changes. So next time you’re scared or as the witches, ghouls and clowns descend try to turn your nervous energy into excitement (or you can just run away!).

Ella Pilson 

Featured Photo by melwasser from Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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