Fear. It’s the queasy-stomach, heart racing dread you might experience sitting down to start an exam, waiting at the top of a rollercoaster just before the drop, or watching a horror movie when the violins start really going at it so you know there’s about to be a jump scare.
You’ve probably heard about fight or flight response already, because this primal reaction to threat is one of our brain’s most basic evolutionary functions. In modern day, although we’re no longer occupied by running away from woolly mammoths, this same response is still hardwired into our psyche as the emotion of fear - and in some cases, phobias or anxiety. In this issue of All The Feels, we’ll look at why this response is useful, some cases where it’s not, and how fear can be better managed in our daily lives.
Fear is essentially our emotional response to threat. It’s been theorised that there are five basic fears that all humans share: extinction (or death), mutilation (harm), loss of autonomy (being trapped, whether physically or emotionally), separation (abandonment or loss) and ego-death (loss of integrity through shame or humiliation).
A phobia is an excessive or irrational fear reaction which is connected to something specific. Take the common example of claustrophobia - the excessive or irrational fear of small and confined spaces. A person with claustrophobia will exhibit a severe fear response every time they are confronted with a small, confused space - this includes the emotional response of dread, and all of
the physical symptoms that come with it.
Anxiety disorders are a group of disorders characterised by feelings of fear or anxiety which are strong or frequent enough to interfere with daily life. Phobias are one anxiety disorder, but other include general anxiety disorder (excessive and debilitating worrying), social anxiety disorder (in which the fear response is triggered in social situations), and panic disorder (frequent panic attacks). A panic attack is essentially a period of intense fear response when there is no immediate danger, usually lasting from a few minutes to half an hour. Like phobias, they have all the physical and emotional symptoms of fear, but are not necessarily connected to a particular thing - although certain stimulus can make them more likely, such as the memory of a traumatic event.
We’ve talked a lot about fear response, but what exactly is it? Fear is probably the most physically felt emotion - not only is it shown by activity in the brain, like happiness and sadness are, but all over the body. When a person is confronted by threat, the sensory information (like a predator’s growling) is interpreted by the sensory cortex and compared to memories in the hippocampus, which tell us whether we’ve encountered the threat before, and thus whether we should be scared of it. If we decide we should, the amygdala (who you’ll remember as the brain’s emotional centre from our previous issues on happiness and sadness) releases a signal to the hypothalamus, which is in charge of the fight or flight response.
Fight or flight is basically the changes to our organ and brain function which make it easier for us to either fight the threat, or run away from it. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases hormones into the bloodstream and cause change to the muscles. This is where we get the increased heart rate from - it’s so we can get more oxygen to our muscles and better fight or escape the threat. Meanwhile, the adrenalcortical system is also being activated, releasing around 30 different stress hormones which dilate the pupils, tense muscles, shut down 'nonessential systems’ like digestion, and focus the brain’s thinking power on the currently perceived threat. From this we get the nausea, tension and lack of concentration that we often get from stress or nervousness.
What you can probably see is that this system works pretty well - when the threat at issue is something like a predator, that we could actually fight or run away from. Now, though, stress and fear are more likely to be caused by school assessment or social situations, and in these cases, the response is way less helpful. Fear is how we’ve evolved and survived as a species, but the way our lives are built now sometimes make it seem unnecessary, or even damaging to our quality of life, especially in the case of anxiety disorders.
THE TEEN EXPERIENCE
Our experience of fear changes a lot as we get older. Kids tend to have phobias of the dark or seeing monsters in their room at night, whereas with teenagers, it’s much more common to have phobias about exams or social situations. Since so much of our lives are focused around high school, in both its academic and social aspects, it’s not uncommon for teenagers to have fears
surrounding these things.
Panic disorders usually begin to surface during adolescence between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, and are generally more common amongst teen girls. The pressure of succeeding in studies can cause avoidance, and put teens more at risk of developing these disorders (although there are also genetic factors, and upbringing plays a significant role).
DEALING WITH FEAR
Anxiety, phobias and panic attacks are very complex and difficult things which cannot be easily fixed, and may need to be dealt with through therapy or medication. However, there are some ways to limit or control the experience of the emotional state of fear in the moment.
Ever been freaking out and heard “just take a deep breath”? It’s a cliche suggestion to to the point of being irritating, especially when your body is being told to breath fast and shallow because there’s danger, but it is actually good advice. Breathe in deeply and slowly, hold it for a few seconds, and then breathe out even slower. A common pattern is 4-7-8; inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, exhale for 8. Repeat the pattern until you’ve felt your heart rate decrease and your mind clear a little bit. Once the rush of being overwhelmed has passed, you’ll be more able to deal with the issue at hand.
Visualisation can also help with fear - imagining being somewhere that makes you feel happy or calm can take your mind off the situation. Try closing your eyes, and picturing whatever will calm you down in the moment.
Finally, talking through fear can help. If you’re with someone you trust, explain what’s going on in your mind. For some people, physical contact will reassure them - squeeze someone’s hand, or ask for a hug, or even a simple back rub might be enough to put your mind at ease, at least temporarily. If the fear is something ongoing, try calling a helpline or using an online chat service like KidsHelpline. ReachOut also has a list of apps for overcoming fear and managing anxiety, which you can find here:
It’s always important to remember that our fears are usually blown out of proportion. The experience is very real, but the threat is not. If you can get in control of your mind, you’ll be able to moderate the physical responses too.
(Disclaimer: If you’ve been experiencing anxiety or phobia, or are worrying about a friend who has, talk to a trusted adult, councillor or GP, or contact KidsHelpline.)
References and Links