What Causes Fear?


A potential for pain, or an unrecognizable event, causes fear. The amygdalae, organs in the limbic system, detect such possibilities and send the signals which generate the fear emotion. Unlike the rational brain, emotions trigger a variety of instinctual attitudes and behaviors. Each such emotion is chosen by the limbic brain to meet a particularly demanding contingency in life. The anger emotion switches on attitudes and behaviors which support confrontation. Fear, on the other hand, responds to danger by recalling fearful images, preparing the body for flight and by signaling muscles to freeze, or flee.

Fear acts instantly. It will stiffen your muscles before you can walk to the edge of a precipice. While fear signals act swiftly to avoid danger, they intensify when danger is unavoidable. In such situations, fear signals inhibit conscious thinking and set off subconscious searches for escape routes, while preparing the body to freeze, flee, or to defend itself. Those subconscious searches flash images of the results of failure. A lack of escape avenues intensifies the fear emotion. Together, the recalled images, the urges to escape and the bodily preparations for stress feel unpleasant.
  • Fear, triggered by the amygdala, is one of nature's earliest survival mechanisms.
  • A large part of fear is a response to the horror of painful experiences in life.
  • Fear generates a chain of biological events in the body, which engulf the mind.
  • Persistent attacks of fear lead to many health issues.
  • Fear is caused by historically harmful events, pain experiences and the unknown.
  • Fear begins with the startle response.
  • Fear is essentially an outdated response in the modern world.
  • Fear leads to many subconscious behaviors.
  • Scientists have discovered chemicals, which may, one day, mitigate the effects of excessive fear.
  • Self awareness is the key to dealing with fear.
What Causes Fear – An Evolutionary Survival Mechanism
During the early beginnings of life, nature developed the amygdalae as special purpose organs in the brain to remember and respond to danger signals. They become sensitive to sensory signals, which accompanied past painful events. Such sensitivity in the amygdalae of animals has been extensively verified. In typical experiments, a rat is exposed to a painful foot shock accompanied by a sound.

Later, when the sound alone is heard, its amygdalae will fire fear signals. Such painful experiences were seen to develop “speed dial (LTP) circuits,” which later responded instantly to the related sound signal. The organs became over sensitive to such signals. As essential as the vertebrae, these organs were early components of the brains of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. As the primary defense response mechanism, the amygdalae recognized danger patterns and impelled animals to fight, freeze, or escape.

What Causes Fear – Terror & Horror
Fear is expressed at increasing levels as worry, anxiety, dread, terror and panic. These levels are determined by the imminence of danger. Worry and anxiety are triggered by the anticipation of being harmed in the future. Dread, terror and panic concern the immediate present. At the highest levels, terror and panic overwhelm people, causing them to make irrational choices. While terror is an apprehension of impending danger, horror is a sickening and painful experience. Horror is the emotion, which lays the foundations for the amygdalae to sense the backgrounds of painful events. The amygdalae remember the images, sounds, words and situations, which accompanied the horror of injury, ridicule, social rejection, loss of loved ones, or career failure. Subsequently, the detection of any related signals trigger fear, often without the person knowing the cause of her fear.

What Causes Fear – Bodily Responses
On receiving fear signals from the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, acts reflexively to control the reproductive, vegetative, endocrine, hormonal, visceral and autonomic functions of the body. Breathing, digestion, blood circulation, brain activity and body fluid flows are instantly affected. The signals from the amygdalae dilate pupils and increase brain wave frequency. They make hairs stand on end. They reduce saliva, drying the mouth. They cause sweating and a decrease in skin resistance. They decrease peripheral blood flow and cause hands to become cold. The signals speed breathing and dilate bronchial tubes to allow more air to the lungs. They tighten stomach muscles, slow digestion and close down the excretory system. They increase acids in the stomach, causing diarrhoea.

The signals travel to the adrenal gland, which produces cortisol, causing an increase in glucose production to provide additional fuel for the muscles and brain to deal with the potential stress. The signals increase blood pressure, release sugar into the blood and increases the tendency for blood clotting. The signals increase red blood cells. They tense postural muscles, causing hand and body tremors. They dilate blood vessels to skeletal muscles to allow greater blood flow. They slow the working of the immune system. The amygdalae trigger a chain of biological events and engulf the mind in the fear emotion, even before the conscious mind can assess the situation. In the modern world, such persistent fear signals are not set off by real physical danger. They are triggered by an instinctive brain, which tries to overcome social and career issues by foolishly preparing the body to freeze, flee or defend itself.

What Causes Fear – Long Term Effects
A persistent lack of escape routes from danger lead to the insistent fear signals of anxiety, which raise heart rate and blood pressure over time. Such conditions are believed to lead to heart palpitations, fatigue, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, stomach aches, or headaches. Escalating fear signals trigger panic attacks, which have indications similar to the symptoms of heart attacks. Anxiety over the years has been linked to health issues, including arthritis, migraines, allergies, stomach ulcers and thyroid disease.

What Causes Fear – Inherited, Acquired & The Unknown
The amygdala triggers fear signals, which drive you to escape from danger. It responds to three types of events. The first inherited set of circuits fire on identifying historically harmful events. The second group of neurons develop LTP circuits, which learn to fire on identifying events, which accompanied painful experiences. The last group of circuits trigger fear, when the system is unable to identify the impact of an event.

What Causes Fear – Historic Triggers
Over millions of years, nature has assembled in the amygdala a memory for harmful events. On recognizing signals of such events, the amygdala instinctively responds by triggering fear. So, most people have an inherited fear of falling, of being suffocated in enclosed spaces, of drowning in water and of being attacked by rats, cockroaches, or snakes. Even stage fright and a fear of public speaking originate from an instinctive fear of becoming a focus of attention of predators. The fear responses of the amygdala for such events are often accompanied by the startle response.

What Causes Fear – Pain Experiences
Over a lifetime, the amygdala builds an additional sensitivity to pain experiences. Pain may have been caused by physical injury, painful confrontations, loss of loved ones, loss of social status, or through social rejection. Mirror neurons also trigger pain within us, on seeing the painful experiences of others. Whenever such pain has been experienced, the amygdala stores memories of the related sensory signals. Fear can be triggered by the fleeting image of an angry face. People suffer fears of failing, of being ridiculed, of the loss of loved ones. If a person suffered trauma, when left alone as a child, she may fear loneliness.

What Causes Fear – The Unknown
The human mind recognizes the impact of an event in less than 300 milliseconds. When the system is unable to identify the significance of an event, fear is triggered by the amygdala. Without the actual experience of such events, people fear death, nuclear wars, terrorism, or even threatened changes in their work environments. When fear envelops you for a reason you are unable to fathom, it is useful to list the issues, which bother you. You will find that by locating the cause of such fear and facing up to it will free you from the emotion.

What Causes Fear – The Startle Response
Fear begins with the startle response. It is the fastest response (20 milliseconds) of the mind to danger through a direct amygdala fear pathway as reported by Joseph E. LeDoux. He identified a second route (300 milliseconds) through the reasoning processes of the cortex, which can proceed to still a sudden onset of fear. Mere movements, sounds or images can trigger the fearful startle response. The reflex is present from birth.

When a newborn senses a possibility of falling, her back arches and her arms and legs flail out. Doctors test the reflex to be sure of an infant's nervous system by simulating a sense of falling by allowing its head to drop slightly. The startle signals from the amygdala activates the sympathetic system, which heightens emotional arousal. Later, the cortical signals may energize the parasympathetic system, dampening down emotional tension. Unthinking fear set off by the startle response may be stilled by the reasoned cortical signals, such as when a coiled snake is identified to be just a garden hose.

What Causes Fear – An Outdated Response
While physical danger was ever present in the primitive world, it is less relevant today. Unfortunately, while justified by a tiger in the vicinity, fear responses are unsuitable and unhealthy for a person facing career problems. The possibility of dismissal from work requires a calm and collected reaction. Fear triggers images of unpaid bills and sets off a tightness in your chest, which serve no useful purpose. If a solution to the problem was available to you, you would immediately know it. Worry and anxiety set off by fear rarely find solutions, but affect your health. Except for avoiding sudden physical injury, fear is an irrelevant animal response. The cause of such fear is a primitive neural signal from the amygdala, which can be stilled through the practice of self awareness.

What Causes Fear – Subconscious Avoidance
In the instant in which an animal senses danger, its mind identifies a course of action – possibly to slip under a rock. Fear is a creative process, which subconsciously searches your mind for ways to escape pain. Your impulsive decisions, when triggered by fear, may not present you with any conscious awareness of the particular pain that you wish to avoid. Pain is triggered by many social emotions, including sadness, disgust, contempt, embarrassment, guilt, and shame. A fear of being ridiculed can make a person decide not to take part in conversation. Fear of experiencing the fear emotion may make a person avoid challenging assignments.

What Causes Fear – Chemical Links
Fear is triggered within the amygdalae, because its nerve junctions develop special sensitivity to particular sensory signals. Even faint sounds may trigger unbearable fear reactions for patients suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome. Richard Huganir discovered that timely manipulation of specific molecules which regulate synaptic plasticity in the amygdalae of animals can remove the fear response. He identified an unusual protein, which appeared in the amygdala of animals, which had been conditioned to respond to sounds accompanying a foot shock.

That molecule, which remained for only a few days, appeared to strengthen the fear circuits in the amygdalae. When the researchers eliminated the protein during this period, the animals permanently lost those induced fearful memories. A combination of behavioral and pharmacological therapies aimed at those molecular targets may one day be used to help patients. Scientist from Zurich also found that the hormone oxytocin related to stress and sex also reduced amygdalae activity.

What Causes Fear – Dealing With Fear
Self awareness can reduce the causes of fear. The intense activity in the amygdalae, which causes the fear experience, can be reduced by the attention center of the brain – the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC). Columbia University researchers observed that when fear stimuli was perceived consciously, rACC acted to dampen down amygdalae activity. Self awareness and a few mind control practices can make the global effect of fear visible and so still its impact. For normal people, conscious awareness and acceptance of the fear experience will still amygdala activity. With the conviction that fearlessness can become an acquired habit, the practice of self awareness can bring a calm and still mind.

Creative management requires alertness, not fear. Fear tends to paralyze. Every vista appears dangerous and threatening. In any threatening situation, you can only do one of three things. Do something about it, avoid it, or live with it. A quiet evaluation will define your response and still the fear. The awareness of danger will still be present. Common sense appears, when fear is stilled. It is the ability to take those calculated risks, which make a project successful.

This page was last updated on 02-Jan-2014



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