Psychology Of Fear: How Does Fear Work?
Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. As such, it is an essential part of keeping us safe.
However, when people live in constant fear, whether from physical dangers in their environment or threats they perceive, they can experience negative impacts in all areas of their lives and even become incapacitated.
Psychology Of Fear: How Does Fear Work?
Fear prepares us to react to danger. Once we sense a potential danger, our body releases hormones that:
- Slow or shut down functions not needed for survival (such as our digestive system)
- Sharpen functions that might help us survive (such as eyesight). Our heart rate increases and blood flows to muscles so we can run faster.
Our body also increases the flow of hormones to an area of the brain known as the amygdala to help us focus on the present danger and store it in our memory.
Impact Of Fear
Fear is experienced in our minds, but it triggers a strong physical reaction in our bodies. As soon as you recognize fear, your amygdala (the small organ in the middle of your brain) goes to work. It alerts your nervous system, which sets your body’s fear response into motion. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase. You start breathing faster. Even your blood flow changes — blood actually flows away from your heart and into your limbs, making it easier for you to start throwing punches or running for your life. Your body is preparing for fight-or-flight. Living under constant threat has serious health consequences.
- Physical health. Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, and decreased fertility. It can lead to accelerated aging and even premature death.
- Memory. Fear can impair the formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave a person anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world looks scary and their memories confirm that.
- Brain processing and reactivity. Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately.
- Mental health. Other consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression, and PSTD.
Fear is a complex human emotion that can be positive and healthy, but it can also have negative consequences. If fear or phobia affects your life in negative and inconvenient ways, speak to your primary care provider, who can help determine the kind of treatment you might need, or contact us.
If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until help arrives.
- Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
- Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
- If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Published: October 29, 2022
Last Updated: December 20, 2022
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