The awesome truth about fear you need to know

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You're watching The Ring, snuggled deep in the dark of your living room, pillow clutched to your chest. And the phone rings. You feel something behind you, you can hear it breathing, but when you turn, nothing is there.

You stand up, turn on a light, and see a flash of movement outside the window. You draw the blinds and head into the kitchen to grab a snack. When you open the pantry, a spider drops from the ceiling. You take a deep breath, grab a bag of chips, and hear the upstair's floorboards creak. But you're alone.

Your heart is racing, your hands sweaty, your breath coming fast and furious. You are afraid.

Fear is a functional state that links a stimulus to a pattern of behaviors. I say it's functional because it's kept you alive all this time. Without fear, you would run into traffic, jump off tall buildings, or stick your head in an alligator's mouth (maybe that's part common sense).

But how does fear work on a biological basis?

Fear and the brain

Fear starts with a stimulus. A lightning strike, a fast moving car, a large dog. One or more of your sensory organs detects this stimulus and sends a signal to a region of the brain called the thalamus.

From there two separate signals head to the amygdala. But one signal takes the direct route and another routes through the sensory cortex.

The faster, more direct, route sounds an alarm for immediate action. This route is quick, messy, take no chances, acts first. It's what kick starts the fight, flight, or freeze reactions.

Your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Blood is diverted away from your digestive system, face, neck, and hands and toward your extremities. Your respiration increases and your hands sweat. Your mouth feels dry and your muscles tense. Time seems to freeze and your attention narrows.

The detoured route is a fraction of a second slower. But by making a pit stop at the sensory cortex, it has time to process a tiny bit more information. This second route reinforces the fear or it declares a false alarm.

Let's imagine you are weeding your lawn. You come upon a long, thin, brown object. You instantly jump away (short route) thinking it's a snake. A split second later, you realize it's a stick (long route) and can breathe a sigh of relief. But had it been a snake, you've already begun the fear response that could save you from a snake bite.

Of course, once you realize it's just a stick, you have to come down from your fear response. You likely still feel shaky and tense. A good shake (think of a gazelle that survives being chased by a lion) or a fast walk around the block should settle you back down.

The basis of fear

Some of our fears are genetic. We are born with them. But we learn most of our fears, either from personal experience or from the experiences of others.

Monkeys in the wild are afraid of snakes. But life-long captive monkeys are not. But they can learn to be scared of snakes, when they see another monkey is afraid of them. According to Michael Cook's research at the University of Wisconsin, they only need to see this once to build that fear.

Fear vs. anxiety

Last week, you were crossing the street when a car ran the red light and nearly hit you. Thanks to your fear response, you were able to jump out of the way.

This week, you are crossing at the same intersection and you worry. But you are not feeling fear.

Fear is a negative emotional state brought on by the presence of a stimulus (speeding car). The stimulus has the potential to cause you harm. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a negative emotional state triggered by the anticipation of a threat.

When you are preparing to give a speech or take an exam, you are anticipating a threat (failure or humiliation in these examples). So you're not afraid, you are anxious. In fact, fear and anxiety originate in two separate sections of the amygdala.

While all animals appear to have the capacity for fear, that isn't necessarily true of anxiety. Anxiety requires the ability to anticipate, something we humans have mastered. Our imagination can get us to the moon, but it can also create an endless list of dangerous scenarios that play out in our heads all day long.

Overcoming fear

Fear is an adaptive emotional state that has kept you alive all this time. It's important to appreciate it for what it is and has done for you. Fear is your brain's way of keeping you safe while asking for more information to a particular situation. But when fear becomes an anxiety or a phobia, it can begin to control your life. It's important to seek professional advice if this happens.

If you'd like to face an anxiety, like public speaking, consider the outcome of letting the anxiety win. Will that outcome support your goals and values? What's the worst that can happen if you let the anxiety win?

Next, ask yourself what's the worst thing that can happen if you move through the anxiety and give that speech. Make a plan for facing or avoiding troubling situations. Scientists have found we can be much more courageous when we know what to expect and have a plan.

Last, get a pep talk and a hug. When we give or receive hugs, oxytocin (the bonding hormone) is released. This hormone has been shown to subdue the activation of the amygdala, thereby reducing our reaction to fear. And researchers have found that the amygdala reacts less when we are reminded that we are loved.