Fear is a funny concept, and how our bodies process fear is a concept I’ve always pondered. What makes us instinctively step forward to fight, or to run in the opposite direction? What is it that makes me so afraid of spiders? Was I born with that fear trait or was it learned by my brain over the years?
The “fight or flight” theory, also known as the acute stress response, was initially proposed by Walter Cannon, a Physiology professor at Harvard University, in 1915. Cannon was studying mice when he found his laboratory animals experienced change in their stomachs when afraid. This led him to further investigate the matter. His studies found that when threatened, the nervous systems partnered with the adrenaline in his animals, activating an instinctive nature to either fight, or to flee.
How It Works (Scientifically)
So, in order to trigger this instinct, the hypothalamus (a portion of the brain), interacts with 2 separate systems in the body: the adrenaline system and the nervous system (as said above). The nervous system is your body’s active movements, and reactions; whereas, the adrenaline system sits within your bloodlines. So, when faced with fear, your body’s nervous system immediately kicks in, relaxing the muscles and activating two parts of adrenaline: epinephrine and norepinephrine. Together, these two heighten your blood pressure and muscle contractions. At the same time, your brain also releases CRF into your body, in which activates up to 30 hormones (yes, 30). All of these factors are active contributors to how you instinctively react to a tense situation.
According to Cannon, your body may react to this in various ways:
- Heart Racing
- Heavy breathing
- Bladder relaxation
- Altered / compromised vision
- Dry mouth
Why do we fear?
To me, it seems that every specie on this planet possesses some attribute of fear, and reacts to it differently. For instance, many animals run in the presence of humans because well, we are bigger (to many), and typically the predator. However, if you happen to cross the wrong animal (i.e. a mama), she might attack you in fear of her offspring being in danger. So, it’s pretty interesting to realize that every specie experiences the “fight or flight” theory.
Can we learn to fear?
A question I proposed earlier was whether or not I was born to naturally fear spiders, or if I had learned to fear them throughout experiences in my life. Well, a study conducted by John Watson, they tested an infant (Little Albert) and his fear for white rats. In this study, though perhaps not the most ethical, they conditioned the child to associate the rat with fear. They achieved this by playing a loud startling noise every time Little Albert reached to play with a rat. The conclusion of this testing found that not only did the infant become terrified of the rats, but he also went on to fear other things resembling rats throughout his childhood.
I think in many ways we are all influenced by fear. For instance, as a child my mom was bitten by two dogs: a pit bull and a husky. They dogs jumped the fence and latched onto her face, leaving her bloody, frightened, and needing surgery. To this day, my mom refuses to acknowledge those breeds of dogs. Though she knows not all dogs have similar temperaments, she still gets uneasy around a pit bull or a husky. Something similar happened to me as a child, though it was my arm, and I still love any kind of dog that crosses my path, I don’t think I will ever be conditioned to fear dogs, haha.
All in all, fear is a natural part of being alive. Whether you fear spiders or clowns, your body goes through the same reactions chemically as any other specie on this planet. You cannot predict how you will instinctively react until you are faced with fear, and that’s what is so interesting. Though we all experience the same chemical reactions in our brains, adrenaline, and bloodstreams, how our bodies cope with the stress of a frightening situation is always different. So stop being afraid to fear, you are human, embrace it.
Julia Layton “How Fear Works” 13 September 2005.
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“Epinephrine and Norepinephrine – Boundless.” Boundless. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.
Brown, Theodore M., and Elizabeth Fee. “Walter Bradford Cannon.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. N.p., Oct. 2002. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.
“Walter Cannon: Stress & Fight or Flight Theories – Video …” Study. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.