Fear is not an emotion, but rather a mechanism or process to aid safety and survival…

Yes, yet another article on fear.

I come across this misunderstanding so often; that people think of fear as a feeling. Fear is not a feeling; it is an autonomous mechanism or process that evolved over millions of years to aid our safety and survival, based, almost entirely, upon intrinsic (not conscious) memory storage of past experiences that were perceived as a danger or threat to survival. Yes, there is also a feeling, but this is not what fear actually is, but rather a consequence of a much more complicated process.

The feeling we get when we are afraid is the result of the process of fear rather than being the process itself. The feeling part stems from the recognition of physical sensations due to the bodily changes; the increased heart rate, increased vigilance and arousal (known as hypervigilance and hyperarousal), and general super-alertness and focus is the result of the chemicals norepinephrine and epinephrine which are released by the adrenal glands. These chemicals are responsible for mobilising energy and preparing us to act upon a fear (freeze, fight or flight) and facilitate our safety and survival. Primarily, these chemicals are responsible for making as much energy available as possible for “fight or flight”. They also focus the brain by actually switching off most of the brain; all the unnecessary mental noise will only slow down our “fight or flight” reaction times. The brain needs to be able to quickly work out where the threat is coming from and what the threat is and there is no time for conscious debate. The first and most important part of the brain to be switched off is the “reasoning” frontal cortex; our life is in danger and we don’t need to reason about it, we just need to act (this worked extremely well when life was more threatening, but is extremely dysfunctional in most “threatening” situations we find ourselves in, in the modern world). The chemical responsible for sending the message to switch off parts of the brain is cortisol, but it doesn’t just tell parts of the brain to switch off, it also tells many other functions, mental and physical, to switch off so as to preserve energy and redirect it towards “fight or flight”. Cell reproduction and the immune system (our ability to fight off disease, infection and repair our bodies; hair growth, skin repair, etc.), Digestion (digesting and processing the food we eat), reproduction (sexual performance and ability to conceive offspring, including unborn offspring and the possibility of miscarriage). Just about any bodily process that isn’t necessary for “fight or flight” can suffer from the “switch off” message.

The process of fear begins when a signal from one or more of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch or taste) passes through the amygdala where it is compared to intrinsic emotional memories to see if the pattern matches one of a past experience that caused fear to be triggered. This process is almost instantaneous and doesn’t register within our conscious thoughts, which take a lot more time to recognise these things. It’s also autonomous; in other words, separate from consciousness and independent from thought. Think of, perhaps, blinking, coughing, or breathing; it’s something you don’t really think about or choose to do, it just happens, it’s an autonomous process.

There are, primarily, two types of memory; intrinsic and explicit. Explicit is the type we all know as the recall or remembering of events in sounds, visions, smells, etc. Intrinsic memory, we are little less familiar with; intrinsic memory is not the kind that we can remember in visions, sounds or smells. It’s an emotional memory, or an emotional state memory. It remembers an emotional state, especially if that emotional state was produced by fear of death. Its primary role is in remembering past dangers so that they can be compared to present circumstances to see if there is a danger in the present. When faced with an obvious danger, this system works fine, but when faced with the more diffused threats of our modern world it becomes disadvantageous and dysfunctional; when the danger signal gets sent, yet is it is not immediately apparent why the danger signal is being sent, the brain scans all it’s systems looking for recognition of something that might explain the danger. Unfortunately it also involves the “imagination”. The reason it involves the imagination is because our imagination is strongly linked to our ability to make connections with things and recognise things that would not normally be recognisable. For instance, we may see an ear in the grass, and our imagination builds the body that the ear is attached to, and that picture may form in to that of a Sabretooth Tiger, so we run. Whether it was a Sabretooth Tiger or not, is hardly worth worrying about because, on the off chance it might have been, our survival mechanisms have done their job.  Unfortunately our imagination, especially when in service of our fear mechanisms, can often, in our modern world, still see that ear poking out of the grass as a sabretooth tiger, even though there are no longer any sabretooth tigers around. To a person with poor regulation of the fear mechanism, there might be no difference between an angry spouse, or boss … and a sabretooth tiger, because they never developed the ability to regulate their primitive fear response.

There is also the process of gathering information about the source of fear; trying to collect information that builds a picture of where the danger is coming from. In a relationship this may take the form of allowing the partners little mistakes, vulnerabilities and failings to build up a good enough reason to act on the “fight or flight” response. Nothing is ever forgiven because it all becomes part of the evidence to initiate fighting or running away and it all piles up in the background triggering memories, further triggering fight or flight and it becomes a “negative feedback loop” as the evidence mounts to the point it can be acted on. It’s all about working out what the best method is of avoiding the threat or danger. In a relationship, the little niggles and arguments might at first trigger the fight response in the form of aggression, anger, escalating conflicts, emotionally hurtful behaviours .. and maybe even physical hurting or violence. On the other hand, if the fight response does not drive the threat away then we might change tactics and go in to the flight response. In a relationship this would probably involve leaving the relationship abruptly and wanting no further contact with the person that you were once very intimate with. They would no longer be seen as safe, but rather an enemy, a danger, someone that means harm. Even if, rationally, you might know that they are not likely or even capable of harm, without the regulating influence of strong connections between the frontal cortex and the amygdala, you have to obey the amygdala because it overrules the reasoning brain in times of fear and uncertainty.

So, the amygdala, on comparing signals from the five senses, if it finds a match in intrinsic memory from a past danger, it triggers something called the HPA Axis. The “HPA Axis”, or “Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal Axis” triggers a chain of events that become a cycle that stimulates and intensifies arousal and alertness and readies the body for fight or flight. The negative feedback loop means that if the HPA Axis isn’t told to calm down then it will keep intensifying to try to force fight or flight. In other words; the more you resist the urge to “fight or flight”, the more it intensifies to promote your action. It’s the actions of the HPA Axis, and the result of the chemicals produced, that actually creates the “feeling” part of fear because it triggers an escalating bodily reaction.



Now to what turns off the HPA Axis response;

The structures involved in the HPA Axis response are present at birth, but the structures for turning off, or regulating the HPA Axis response don’t fully develop until mid adulthood. Most of their development occurs in the first three years of life and from then on it is more a case of fine tuning of the connections. In fact we never fully stop tuning these structures and they can be retuned by a process known as “neuroplasticity” using processes such as NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), among others, but that’s a slightly different subject. There are multiple areas of the brain that are implicated in the modulation of the HPA Axis; the locus coeruleus, the anterior cingulate, the hippocampus, the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex all appear to play a role. At birth, the connections between these brain parts and the limbic system are yet to develop and their development is subject to experiential circumstances in the life of the infant. This process allows for variation based upon what kind of environment the infant is experiencing, it’s experience based so that the development can adapt to a potentially hostile environment for a greater chance of survival. The unfortunate result of this is that if the child experiences high levels of stressful instability, most importantly during the first three years of life, then the development of these connections can become seriously impaired and dysfunctional leading to an unstable HPA Axis. The child, and later adult, might experience their environments as far more hostile  and “unsafe” than they actually are due to not being able to properly regulate the HPA Axis.

So as you can see, the process of fear is a complex mechanism that precedes and perpetuates the emotional response and physical sensation to the physiological changes brought on by the process, or mechanism of fear. And as a process or mechanism, if we can become conscious of it, if we can acknowledge it for the process it is, and if we can see its dysfunctional influence, we empower ourselves to make the correct changes to our own neural structures, through the process of plasticity, that enables us to regain control from the mechanisms of fear.