I'd like you to meet Ian. Ian is healthy, intelligent and currently out for a walk in the woods. Suddenly, a rabbit hops out from the bushes onto the path in front of Ian. Now Ian is positively terrified of rabbits, always has been, ever since he saw the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Ian looks at the brown and white rabbit snuffling at something on the path and his limbic system explodes into action. In a second his brain assesses the situation and the amyglada releases epinephrine and norepinephrine hormones (more commonly known as adrenaline and noradrenaline) giving Ian the energy to execute the decision he makes. His fight-or-flight response looks at the floppy-eared rabbit, determining that it is too dangerous to fight and Ian turns on his heels and sprints in the opposite direction.
I must admit to you that I am afraid myself of trying to explain such a complex thing as fear, a deep emotion, a survival tool, a thing that is unique to every person. Something that varies from nightmares to roller coasters to brown and white rabbits. Why do we pay money to be frightened at theme parks and movie theatres? What comforts us when we are afraid? Why do some people fear spiders while others fear ice cream sprinkles, heights or rabbits? What exactly IS fear?
Join me on an adrenaline rush as I attempt to peel back the layers of this emotion. Don't be frightened, but I do not mind it if you want to sleep with a nightlight or cover your eyes. If need be even, you can hold my hand.
Fear begins with the amyglada, located deep in the brain shaped like two almonds. It is part of the limbic system, which deals with basic physiological drives, meaning instincts and emotions come from there such as happiness, anger, love and fear. When faced with something frightening, the amyglada erupts into actions, triggering the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal gland. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are powerful hormones that increase heart rate and breathing, causes pupils to dilate and muscles to contact. Essentially, it readies the body for immediate action. This is the body's primary survival tool.
But honestly, have you not ever been rooted to the spot when frightened? So petrified that you are paralysed? Even if your heart is pounding and your breathing rapid, you simply cannot move, your feet are rooted to the spot and no matter how much your brain screams at you to move, you just can't? Why is this? Also, why do people sometimes run straight into the danger? I think this is because the body realizes that it is in danger and needs to get away, so off the person sprints in a random direction., because there is not enough time for them to rationalize where they should be sprinting off to.
Speaking of rationalizing, I think the simplest way to categorize fear would be into rational and irrational. Our dear friend Ian's fear, for example, of rabbits can be considered irrational whereas a fear of, say, poisonous spiders is utterly and completely rational because poisonous spiders pose a threat to our lives. Also, more intense, compulsive fears can be known as phobias. Phobias are generally chronic, compulsive and isolated to specific things or events. Personally, I have a fear of the dark that fits in nicely with the description of a phobia. When I wake up during a power outage and see absolutely nothing, not a shadow or figure and I hear nothing, not even the low hum of the refrigerator. I panic. The air feels heavy, thick and hot. My breath comes in ragged gasps, my heart is at risk of bursting forth from my chest. I am terrified of nothing, I suppose of being trapped in nothing. Which, frankly, is not quite rational.
One very interesting thing about fear is how we frantically push it away, and yet we crave it. We yearn for the adrenaline rush that sets our sensors off in a flurry of activity, makes us alert and see the world in sharp detail. But how do we experience such a sensation without the danger involved? I give you the roller coaster!! A safe way to give yourself a rush beyond rushes by being thrown about at unfathomable speeds, twirled upside down and dropped from 6 stories up. Though of course, it's not exactly the same as falling over a cliff or looking a bobcat in the eye, but it's as close as we can get to the real thing. And really, no one wants to be in any actual danger, so roller coasters and horror films are the best possible answers.
So, it seems that fear is a bit more complicated than throwing your hands up in the air and screaming when confronted with something scary. It comes from the inside, from our very being and makes up the composition of who we are. It determines what choices we make and ensures our survival. Without it we could quite literally be torn to pieces and truly without fear there would be no courage.