Fright night. How we process fear.
Fear is as old as life on earth. Fear is a fundamental, deeply embedded survival strategy that has evolved over billions of years. It warns and protects living organisms against threats to their very existence. From the simple pricking up of a dog’s ears, to the start of a stampede on an African plain, or a complex series of anxieties in a human, fear can save our lives. It can also give us the greatest pleasure.
We deal with fear in different ways. Fear can reduce us to tears or it can make us feel elated and alive – some people devote substantial energy to being purposely frightened, from the stomach-churning gravity of the fairground ride to the thrill of a high speed ski run down a mountain.
Conspiring together deep in the brain – the most complex structure in the known universe – are chemicals that trigger fight or flight responses as well as positive emotions such as satisfaction, joy and excitement. Believe it or not, the high arousal state we experience when we are scared is closely linked to these other responses.
So what is it that makes the difference between a thrilling adrenalin ‘rush’ and being absolutely terrified? At the most basic level, all emotions are the result of interactions in the biological electrochemical organ we call the brain.
A major factor in how we experience fear is dependent on how we process fear creating stimuli and put them into context. Most of the time, our logical thinking brain and our emotional brain exist in harmony. But we also have the ability to change how we perceive high arousal states, so that we can quickly shift from fear to excitement to enjoyment.
For example, entering a haunted house on Halloween we anticipate there will be things jumping out to frighten us. Because we expect this, the brain can quantify the experiences. But if you walk down a dark alley at night and a stranger begins to walk toward you, the emotional and thinking areas of the brain will both agree the situation is dangerous – possibly life-threatening – and tells you it’s time to run as fast as you can!
So what actually happens when we experience fear?
Fear is first registered in the brain and spreads through the body to make adjustments for the best defence, whether that be flight or flight. The process starts in the amygdala – a small almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobe. One of its purposes is to determine the emotional significance of the stimuli (threat.) For example, the amygdala activates whenever we see a human face that’s expressing an emotion.
This reaction becomes much more pronounced when associated with anger and fear. A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which in a split second activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers the release of stress hormones and activates the sympathetic nervous system. This in turn leads to the vital physical changes that prepare our bodies to perform more efficiently in dangerous situations. The brain becomes hyper alert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates to deliver more oxygen to the bloodstream. Heart rate and blood pressure increase along with blood flow. A stream of glucose is directed to the skeletal muscles while organs not vital for survival – such as the gastrointestinal system – slow down to save energy.
The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex also help the brain interpret perceived threats and are also involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps us recognise whether a perceived threat is real or not. For instance, encountering a large male lion in the wild can trigger a strong fear reaction, but the response to seeing the same lion safely behind bars in a zoo promotes a different response because the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response and its results. The logical circuitry of our brain reassures our emotional brain that we are safe.
So how do we learn to tell the difference?
Human beings usually learn fear through personal experiences. Peak experiences such as being attacked – or observing others being attacked – by a vicious dog act as warnings that will trigger fear in future similar situations. But uniquely in humans, fear can be learned through instruction – we often learn to fear from others. Even the proximity of a dog will then trigger a fear response. We learn safety in the same way – we become used to a docile pet dog or by observing other people safely interact with a dog.
Why do some people enjoy being frightened?
When something scary happens we immediately go on high alert – all our attention is focused on this one event and to the exclusion of every other thought.
Because we are social creatures and are able to learn from one another, when we experience frightening things in the company of others, we often find that emotions can be contagious in a positive way. So, when you look at your friend in the haunted house and she’s progressed from screaming to laughing, your social skills enable you to pick up on that change in emotional state, and that understanding can positively influence your own.
While each of these factors (context and social learning) has the potential to influence the way we experience fear, what connects them is our sense of control. When we can recognize what is and isn’t a real threat, we are also able to re-catalogue that experience and enjoy the thrill of the moment, so that we ultimately reach a place where although we are stimulated, we still feel in control.
So it’s our perception of control that’s vital to how we experience and respond to fear.
When we overcome the initial fight or flight rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.
Everyone is different, everyone sees and understands the world in a slightly different way and everyone has a unique sense of what’s scary and what’s enjoyable. But this raises yet another question – why do some people enjoy a well-intentioned fright while others do not?
An imbalance between excitement caused by fear in the emotional brain and the sense of control in the contextual brain can result in either too much or too little excitement. If the experience is perceived as too real, an extreme fear response can overcome the sense of control. This can happen even in those who enjoy scary experiences – they may enjoy horror movies but be terrified by Alien because the alien is too real, in which case, the fear response is too strong to be moderated by the logical brain.
On the other hand, if the experience is not powerful enough to excite the emotional brain, or if it appears too unreal to the thinking cognitive brain, the experience will end in disappointment.
For example, a biologist who is unable to suspend disbelief enough to override his cognitive brain and is too analytical, will find it difficult to enjoy the Alien movie as much as someone who is not so cynical about ‘alien’ biology. But if the emotional brain is too terrified and the cognitive brain is helpless, or too suppressing, scary movies and scary experiences may not turn out to be so much fun.
Abnormal levels of fear and anxiety can lead to significant distress and dysfunction and limit a person’s ability to achieve success in life.
About one in four people experience a form of anxiety disorder during their lives, and nearly 8% will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Disorders of anxiety and fear include phobias, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These conditions usually begin at a young age, and without appropriate treatment can become chronic and debilitating enough to adversely affect a person’s life. The good news is that there are effective treatments – hypnotherapy being one – that can effect rapid positive change.