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Existential GPS

Shadows in the Attic

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

Fear is one of the most potent human emotions. Primitive yet effective, it alerted us (and still does) to the presence of danger and was essential in keeping our species on the planet. Our emotional evolution with all its intellectual trappings of modern sophistication has done little to smother the reach and intensity of fear. Reduce it all we want, try to explain it away, yet we still feel compelled to whistle while passing by the dark, cerebral cemetery of unknowns. From the shadowy cavities of our minds fear creeps in two ways – emotional and biochemical. The emotional response is highly individualized, while the biochemical response is universal.

The emotional response to fear is very personalized. Fear does involve some of the same chemical responses in our brains that positive emotions like happiness do, so feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as enjoyable, like watching scary movies or going to a “haunted” attraction. Those who get physical pleasure from the release of adrenaline into the body by thriving on extreme sports and other fear-inducing situations would be another example of the complexity to understanding how fear works. While there are others who have a negative reaction to fear, and they avoid fear-inducing situations at all costs. Depending on the individual and the situation, fear may be perceived as either a positive or negative experience.

Fear is a natural survival mechanism. It’s been with us since , well, for as long as we have had the ability to survive as a species. When faced with a perceived threat, our bodies respond in highly specific ways. Reactions to fear may include increased heart rate and higher that usual adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert and “on guard.” This physical response is also known as a “fight or flight” response, in which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away.  Adrenaline as well as the stress hormone cortisol begins pumping through your body at a very high rate. This occurs so that you can react quickly to danger or a perceived threat. If you are someone who is an excessive worrier or you experience sustained fear because of your health, death of a loved one, divorce, etc., then the “fight or flight” reaction releases an overwhelming amount of cortisol into your brain, resulting in sustained worry and potentially clinical anxiety. Fear can, in fact, alter your brain’s wiring, as well as your impulse control.  There are, however, ways to counter this physical reaction. Drinking lots of cold water helps flush the adrenaline and cortisol from your system. Deep breathing exercises are another way to help slow down this process, and of course physical activity and exercise are crucial to decreasing these chemicals in your body to a much more manageable and comfortable level.

Fear is incredibly complex. Some fears could be the result of frightening experiences or even trauma, while others may actually represent a fear of something else a little less obvious, such as loss of control or meaning in life or anxiety over death and dying. Fear in and of itself is not rational. It operates at the opposite end of that spectrum and can often run up against logic or “common sense,” which in turn may cause feelings of guilt or elevated levels of anxiety.

Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. For example: find the light switch in the dark room and all is seemingly well. Exposure reduces both the emotional fear response and the resulting biochemical reaction. Conversely, this leads adrenaline junkies to seek out the extreme – ever new and bigger thrills. Exposure forms the basis of many phobia treatments, which depend on slowly minimizing the fear response by making it feel familiar and eventually extinguishing it altogether.

However, if you are faced with a serious threat or a dangerous situation, then fear is appropriate.  It’s knowing how to manage your fear, so that it doesn’t paralyze you from living your life and from participating or engaging with others in a meaningful fashion.

The solution is to understand your situation and your fears. Therapy or counseling from a licensed professional can help if your fears become too large for you to manage on your own.

To be continued… Part 4 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.