What is fear and why does it arise?

Psychology hour
Dr. Leli

Fear, along with sadness, joy, disgust and anger is one of the fundamental emotions of living things, it warns us of dangers and pushes us to survive. If, for example, in the park we notice that a branch of a tree falls on us, we will find the strength to suddenly jump in front of it. Without this kind of response we would be crushed by the branch. Under the pressure of fear, we are able to do things we never thought we would be able to do. However, it becomes a problem when it is lived in an exaggerated way or out of context. In fact, when faced with a danger, our body produces a hormone – known as adrenaline – that induces physical and mental changes and prepares us for action: we run away or remain motionless (run or fight). If we take a step back to the lives of our ancestors, we can understand the adaptive value of this emotion; fear has protected them from wild animals or hostile neighbors. Today, the stimuli that frighten us are no longer the same, but rather are related to job loss, major life changes or the accumulation of daily problems. However, our thinking and behavioral reactions remain the same as those of our ancestors. The two main reactions to a stimulus that show danger are attack or flight: the first allows us to face the obstacle, to fight; the second causes us to abandon the situation before it becomes excessively threatening to our survival. In addition to these main reactions, there are two others that can occur in the face of a dangerous situation: freezing and fainting. Freezing looks as if the person seems frozen, it is an immobility that allows not to be seen by the “predator” while assessing which strategy (attack or flight) is best for the specific situation. When none of these strategies seem to have any chance of success, the only extremely possible answer is a kind of fainting (false death), is a sudden reduction in muscle tone accompanied by a deep disconnection from anything but the threatening situation. It is a very extreme reaction, manifesting itself as a simulation of death, obviously automatic and unconscious, because predators generally prefer live prey. In this situation there is a detachment from what is happening and it is possible that dissociate symptoms may occur. All of these bodily, cognitive, and behavioral changes are part of the nature of emotions, especially fear, not only to cope with stress, but also to ensure our survival. Problems arise when we fail to stop our physical and mental reactions to a threat that is no longer present or imminent, so that the response to stress, from adaptive, becomes chronic or excessive. We need to know these reactions so that we can integrate them into what is normal, adaptive behavior in the face of danger. Thus, bodily reactions when we experience an emotion of fear include: dry mouth, increased heart rate and respiratory rate, bowel motility, muscle tension, increased sweating. Our body is preparing for an immediate reaction, without such changes; in fact, we would be totally inadequate in the face of danger. In case of excessive fear, the sensations of the body begin to become more pronounced. Muscle tension, essential for the fight or flight response, turns into a state of malaise, ie headache, chest pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, weakness of the legs, nausea or difficulty breathing, attention focused on the heartbeat, which does nothing else than to raise blood pressure and make us feel faint, blurred vision and ringing in our ears. The psychological reaction to dangerous stimuli leads to a change in the way we think. For example, when we are under particular stress, we become more focused on the problem and increase our ability to solve it. Similarly, we will feel a change, such as being more irritable or tense. Thus, an excessive fear response in many situations begins to become a habit, we focus exclusively on what causes us fear, generally worrying that there are no solutions or catastrophizing the situation. Over time, a type of negative thinking about oneself and the surrounding world develops, perceived as a source of threats that are always possible. Such forms of negative reasoning form a vicious circle with bodily changes, such as: “I have chest pains, there must be something wrong with my heart”, or: “This feeling / emotion is unbearable, I can’t do anything”.

What is fear and why does it arise?
Leliana Parvulescu

In this way, stress remains constant, leading to an increase in discomfort and anxiety, which causes people to focus on negative and insoluble events rather than positive ones. If these behavioral changes are persistent, they lead to the addition of negative ones. For example, we can increase the amount of cigarettes we smoke, start eating unbalanced, stop exercising. All this increases the feeling of not feeling well, of being chronically tired and of being less able to cope with stress. Let us remember that the most common response to stress is to avoid situations that scare us. However, the relief that comes from avoiding stressful stimuli is only temporary and increases the feeling of personal distrust. Whatever the trigger that induces anxiety (whether real or imaginary), what maintains the stress response even after the stimulus is exhausted is the activation of the vicious circle just mentioned and that unites all the problems of suffering, fear and anxiety.
Anxiety and fear are coded in the same area of the brain, but the reasons for their occurrence are different. In the first case, when we are afraid, we are afraid of something real. If we have to take an exam, it is normal to be afraid, but when we want everything to go according to our plans, that is, to take the highest grade without any certainty that this will happen, we will talk about anxiety. and not about fear. In short, anxiety is triggered when we make negative and catastrophic predictions about events that are perceived as important or dangerous. In this case, there are a number of physiological changes similar to those of fear: dizziness, confusion, difficulty breathing, tightness or pain in the chest, blurred vision, feeling unreal, heartbeat, numbness or tingling in the fingers, hands and cold feet, sweating, muscle stiffness, headaches, muscle cramps, fear of going crazy or losing control. Anxiety is often generated by the assessments that are made about a certain event, or rather by thoughts, predictions most often, about what will happen in the future. Anxiety, however, could also occur for no apparent reason, manifesting itself excessively and without any control.
Phobia is another form of fear, a disproportionate feeling towards something that is not a real danger, but we perceive this state of anxiety as uncontrollable, even by implementing behavioral strategies that are useful to deal with the situation. Phobia, therefore, is a fear, intense, persistent and lasting, felt for a certain thing. But how do we recognize it? It is a disproportionate emotional manifestation for something that is not a real threat. In fact, those who suffer from phobias are overwhelmed by the terror of coming into contact with the object of the phobia: a spider, a needle, microbes, etc. The physiological symptoms are: tachycardia, dizziness, gastric and urinary disorders, nausea, diarrhea, suffocation, redness, excessive sweating and fatigue. Obviously, these manifestations take place only at the sight of the dreaded thing or at the thought of being able to see it. Phobias are essentially anxious and as such tend to avoid situations associated with fear, but in the long run this mechanism becomes a real trap. In fact, avoidance only confirms the danger of the situation being avoided.