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The science of fear

The science of fear

From terror attacks to collapsing economies, from painkiller epidemics to mass gun violence and poisonous toys from China, the list of fear seems to be exploding. Yet, we are the safest and healthiest humans in history.


What makes us so worried?

Fear comes from the brain. When people encounter something that frightens them, the hypothalamus in the brain reacts by releasing a series of chemicals to the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. In the sympathetic nervous system, signals are sent out to release ‘stress hormones’, like adrenaline. These kick the body into high gear so that it becomes tense and alert. At the same time, the adrenal-cortical system is also secreting hormones to other parts of the body, which instigates a series of remarkable changes to occur, almost instantaneously.


What does Science says?

Heart rate and blood pressure increases, pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible, nonessential systems such as the immune system and digestion turn themselves off to allow more energy go towards emergency function, and veins in the skin constrict which keeps blood in the major muscle groups. According to Northeastern’s Lisa Feldman Barrett, feelings of fear often have to do with uncertainty, particularly uncertainty around whether something is alive or not. All-together, this is known as the fight-or-flight response.


Scientists have discovered that people’s brains react differently during the fight-or-flight response. So, it might depend on your brain or it might depend on how you are scared. One of the hormones released during frightening situations is dopamine. It is also known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone because it is responsible for your brain feeling happiness.


When dopamine flows during a fearful situation, some people react more strongly to it than others. All that dopamine makes the fear feel good and they get a natural high from the fight-or-flight response. Their fears become more like thrills. Studies show we can overcome some of our fears by continued exposure to them. Being frightened isn’t always a bad thing. It’s been a survival mechanism for humans for millions of years.


Gurbani Gandhi