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, which sets off avoidance activities. 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 avoidance activity, directing the 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- Fear is essentially an outdated response in the modern world.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.
Causes Fear –An Evolutionary Survival Mechanism
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.
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.
Causes Fear –Terror & Horror
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
Causes Fear –Bodily Responses
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.
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.
Causes Fear –Long Term Effects
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
Causes Fear –Inherited, Acquired & The Unknown
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.
Causes Fear –Historic Triggers
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.
Causes Fear –Pain Experiences
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
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.
Causes Fear –The Unknown
Without the actual experience of such events, people fear death,
nuclear wars, terrorism, or even threatened changes in their work
environments. The inability to identify the significance of an event
also triggers fear. Archy de Berker reports on the role of
uncertainty in triggering fear. He tracked stress levels in subjects
by measuring changes in pupil diameter, directly linked to the
release of the stresss hormone noradrenaline in the brain. He
discovered that pain and uncertainty have roughly equal roles to play
Subjects felt less fear when they knew that they were
going to suffer pain than when they did do not know whether they
would escape the pain experience. 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. Even accepting
uncertainty as an inevitable facet of your environment will also
reduce your fear.
Causes Fear –The Startle Response
begins with the startle
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.
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
Causes Fear –An Outdated Response
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
Causes Fear –Subconscious Avoidance
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.
Causes Fear –Chemical Links
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.
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
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 01-Apr-2016.
JUST THINK... What happens when you begin to talk? Your nervous system has picked an emotion. It has articulated an idea around it, chosen apt words from a vocabulary of thousands of words, arranged them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusted the pitch of your voice. Before you speak you've no consciousness of the words you will use. Who's actually in charge? This question leads to the question "What is consciousness itself?" Is consciousness a spirit living in a human body? Is it a mystical life form that emerges from the nervous system? This is the hard problem of consciousness.