What Causes the Fear Feeling?

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Mayo Clinic to help determine what in the world had gone wrong with my body.

While there, I met with a doctor who (among MANY other things) discussed how the origin of pain is not in the body part itself, but in the brain. It was a completely illuminating conversation and opened up a similar train of thought to so many other processes that go on in our brain and body.

So what happens if we look at fear as the same thing…a series of chemicals that run through our brain?

Well it will likely make fear much less…scary.

So let’s take a look at what process happens in our brain resulting in a fear response.

What is fear

We’ve already looked pretty closely at fear as an emotion. Check out the other posts in this series for a closer look at ‘being afraid’.

But now let’s look at fear as a biological response to a stimuli, or cause.


Other posts in this series:
Is It Okay To Be Afraid? 10 Reasons the Answer is YES!
How To Identify Fears Honestly
Are you afraid OR anxious – and does it matter which?
Living Well Despite Being Afraid


When you face a spider, or your car spins out of control on a patch of ice, your system automatically kicks into fight-or-flight mode.

You get a rush of adrenaline and your body stops non-crucial functions to direct more energy to that survival.

Maybe you’ve noticed that when you feel as if your in danger, certain senses are heightened. You can hear the noises around you a little more clearly and smell the scents a little more strongly.

If you stop to think about a more-primitive selves, detecting danger through hearing and smelling would have been crucial for survival.

These days, those sense may just add to our sense of stress. But that’s a conversation for a different day.

In the background, in a process that we have no control over, fear is stimulated in the amygdala. This little chunk of our brain triggers stress hormone to release in the body and the sympathetic nervous system to engage. (Source)

Thus, your body is officially in fear mode.

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What happens when the Sympathetic Nervous System is engaged

You definitely have heard the term ‘nervous system’. But you might not have heard the scientific term ‘autonomic nervous system’ (ANS), which is made up of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

Despite the two different names, the ANS controls the same bodily functions. They just divert energy away from different things and away to others.

The following illustration, which I’d love to take credit for but sadly can’t, is a great look at the two and how they differ.

This may look overwhelming, so let me give you a specific example.

Have you seen in movies when someone gets scared and they wet themselves?

You can see in the diagram that the fear system (sympathetic nervous system) causes your bladder to relax. A relaxed bladder = a release of urine.

What may have seemed like a silly Hollywood trope is actually explainable by science. As is fear and the reaction we feel.

If we can understand that the butterflies in your stomach and dizzying adrenaline feeling is a chemical response, we can better manage that response.

If you need help dealing with that anxiety that fear can bring, check out online-therapy.com for their free resources. Full disclosure, there’s also a paid version, but there is SO MUCH to offer before you ever feel the need to pay!

Can we change our response to fear

So, if we assume that fear causes an uncontrollable chemical reaction, are we always at it’s mercy?

The answer to that is definitely not.

There are people out there who turn fear into fun, so surely we can turn fear into something constructive at best. Or non-bothersome at worst.

There is certain context we assign to every experience we have. It assigns value and reference to stimuli that allows a fear response to seem fun and a non-fearful stimuli to make you freak out.

So what frames our experience with fear:

  1. Context – The things surrounding a fear reaction are just as crucial to your experience as the reaction itself. Take, for example, a fear of heights. I’m terrified of ladders and being up on our roof. But I have also ridden roller coasters and been dropped from amazing heights from a bungee cord and had a blast! The difference was the context. In one scenario I am unhooked and in a non-controlled environment. In the other I am having fun and fully strapped in.

Life and fear do not occur in a vacuum. You have to consider the environment and history around a fear before you can fully understand it.

  1. Repeated exposure – As with anything, the more you are around some things the more you get used to it. My fear of bees is practically non-existent now that I’ve had a lifetime of being around them. What used to make me squeal and run away now has no effect.

Naturally this doesn’t work with all things. But it’s very likely you will find some peace by facing a fear instead of running from it.

  1. Distraction – Any emotion – fear happiness, excitement, etc, can all be dulled when our attention is split. Like when you go to your happy place when you’re afraid. Or practice breathing techniques to lessen overwhelming feelings. If we use these distractions to change the intensity of fear, it eventually changes your remembered experience with that fear.

Put differently, fear does create a physical response, but we can and do often change the result of that physical response on our body and brain.

Dangers of the fear response

OUr bodies are designed to handle the feeling of fear. We adjust into and out of the fear response pretty regularly.

What they are NOT designed handle is prolonged fear response or the anxiety caused by fear.

I’m not a physician or doctor, but I am painfully aware of how prolonged fight-or-flight can be detrimental to the body. As someone whose nervous system disorder keeps me in constant sympathetic mode, I can say it is life changing!

However…

I’ll let someone else describe the specific risks.

“Since your body believes you must prepare for a fight or to run, your muscles tighten. Even those at the base of your hair follicles, causing your hair to literally stand on end. Prolonged fear and anxiety often lead to chronic pain in your muscles for this reason.

Fear even causes a metabolic response affects things such as glucose levels, which can increase your risk of heart disease, kidney disease, vision problems, and more.” (Source)

Fear isn’t just mental. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty darn physical.

We’ll spend more time next week looking at how to manage fear so that it doesn’t get stuck and impact your health.

Bringing it all together

There are many things that cause fear in our life.

But the great news is that our response to that fear is consistent and controllable. It’s not our body reacting wildly out of balance, but instead a measured response to ensure that we are able survive whatever is causing the fear.

Once we understand that fear is our sympathetic nervous system kicking into gear, we can understand what we’re feeling and work towards managing it better. Or even learning to enjoy it!

If you’re looking for more information on fear, stay tuned for the coming weeks.

In this series, we’ll be delving more deeply into fear. Topics to be (or already) covered include:

Is it okay to feel afraid?
How to Identify Your Fears Honestly
Are you afraid OR anxious – and does it matter which?
Living Well Despite Being Afraid
Fear, faith, and what the bible says about them

If you are one of the 40% of Americans who deal with anxiety, check out this awesome resource! The confidential web portal gives you access to hours of free mental health resources AND allows you to pay for access to online therapists, which is awesome during a pandemic!

Plus, if you use this link, you get a 20% discount on your first month if you decide to sign up for a plan. For those without insurance like me, this is a great and relatively inexpensive option! And trust me when I say, even the free resources are amazing!

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