What is Fear?

When we speak of fear, in order to have an honest and genuine response to it, it is important to understand its nature.

Fear is not an emotion. Fear is a physical reaction/sensation that is initiated by a very primitive part of the brain that we share with all mammals. When the source of fear is obvious and uncomplicated, the whole perception and reaction/response process is more or less completely autonomous. In other words, it takes care of itself outside of conscious control and conscious awareness. Our awareness of it is a secondary response that rarely goes beyond observer/spectator of our own reactions. Fight or Flight is in essence a “knee jerk” reaction that we have little to no control over. For example, try to stop yourself sneezing, or blinking, or hiccupping, etc. All these are autonomous impulse functions. Fight or Flight is also an autonomous impulse function; an instant physical response to danger.

How is it that fear can bypass our conscious awareness? Well the seat of our fear response is the amygdala and the amygdala has direct connections to the 5 senses so that it can respond more immediately, at times of danger, than it takes our brains to make sense of the danger. In other words; in most cases the reaction comes first and we make sense of it later; we respond to a threat or danger, and then try to make sense of our response, giving it a plausable explanation that we can tell ourselves later to justify our reaction and the associated behaviour towards the perceived danger.

The “emotional” reaction to fear only occurs if the fear is uncertain; In other words, when our bodies are reacting to a danger that our minds cannot see, make sense of, or understand and thus devise an appropriate immediate response to the danger. This causes a psychological effect called “Cognitive Dissonance”. This is the cause of the “emotion” we experience and it is primarily caused by the mind going in to panic/anxiety mode because it is unable to determine the correct response to the signals it is receiving from the body.

Cognitive Dissonance is caused by 2 or more conflicting impulses, thoughts, or signals entering our mental world simultaneously.

The mind goes in to panic/anxiety mode and other areas of the brain become bogged down by trying to determine where the threat is coming from. Often higher cognitive function is lost or impaired (I am sure we have all been in the position before of not being able to think clearly at times of extreme stress) because the brain’s resources are busy on trying to work out where the danger is coming from. This can also affect memory, emotions, etc. In fact nearly all brain and bodily functions can be affected.

I would hypothesise that many of the symptoms of most, if not all personality disorders, are caused by the above condition and that they are maladaptive adaptations to responding to the physical sensation of fear when it is of an indeterminate or uncertain source. In other words, they are not personality disorders, but rather fear disorders caused by a poorly regulated and out of control fear response.

Of further interest is; administered Oxytocin has been shown in studies to improve certain characteristics of Autism. Oxytocin has been shown to have a calming effect on hyperaroused individuals.

The mind then goes in to a hyperaroused/hypersensitive/hypervigilant state while it tries to determine the danger.

When a person enters this state they may appear irrational, paranoid, phobic, emotionally unbalanced, etc. this is because their brain is in a state of chaos while they try to make sense of the danger signals they are receiving from their physical sensation of fear.

  1. Irrational; because the brain’s resources are not available/able to regulate thought processes because they are too busy trying to determine the source of danger.
  2. Paranoid; because the brain is in a state of panic trying to find a source of danger to explain the physical fear sensation and all sorts of non threatening stimulus become a target/source of suspicion and potential danger.
  3. Phobic; see 2.
  4. Emotionally unbalanced; often the danger is perceived to be of an emotional source and this throws the emotions in to chaos.

Aggression and anger can become the preferred and most common response to any uncertainty or unknown situation that stimulates a sense of vulnerability.

A current hypothesis is that the amygdala can become stuck on high danger levels and is unable to turn itself off. I think it’s a little more complex than this and also involves cognitive processes (obsessive thoughts), The HPA axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, Adrenal Glands) & high Cortisol and Adrenalin together with low levels of Serotonin, Dopamine & Oxytocin.

In this “stuck” position, the individual may become (unconsciously) obsessed in finding the cause of the physical sensations of fear, magnifying or even inventing dangers where the danger is small or nonexistent, creating enemies out of friends or acquaintances for small indiscretions or minor infringements. Lovers may become haters; Small, thoughtless or unintentionally hurtful acts may be interpreted as stemming from deliberate, malicious and malignant motives. The patterns are there in many relationships and I am sure we have all experienced them. Minor things from the past are filed away in such a way that they are easily retrievable and attributable to current or future situations in order to bolster perceptions and interpretations associated with an attributable cause that aid in further confirmation of a source of danger or threat.

Certain mental exercises; CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), etc. have been reported to be successful to some extent in retraining the amygdala and restoring regulation. One notable system is called “The Linden Method” after Charles Linden, a self confessed anxiety, panic disorder, OCD sufferer who devised a method to cure his own anxiety and now markets his system as a cure for others.