Chronic fear impacts our physical health, memory, brain processing, and our mental health. This article will explain what happens in our brains and bodies when we experience fear and ways that we can move from fear to resilience.
We feel the emotion fear when we are threatened. The perceived threat can be either physical, psychological, or emotional and can also be real or imagined. We often think of emotions like fear or anger as bad, but every emotion serves a purpose. Fear can help to keep us safe by motivating us to take action that will prevent us from harm. Some of us enjoy being afraid, and we purposely watch scary movies or engage in high-risk adventures such as skydiving.
Hard-wired to detect and respond to danger
Our brains are hard-wired to respond to danger. Our nervous system continually takes in sensory information from our environment and from physiological responses to access risk. Most of us are familiar with fight, flight, or freeze, but there is also a response named appease. Each of these is a physiological response expressed in behavior. The term neuroception, coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, describes how our neural circuitry consistently distinguishes whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ938225
Our bodies respond to fear
Several physiological changes occur in response to fear. In a fight or flight response, our breath and heart rates increase. Our peripheral blood vessels constrict, and our central blood vessels dilate to flood vital organs with oxygen and nutrients. Blood rushes to our muscles, and blood sugar levels can spike to provide energy. Our bloodstream may also have an increase in white blood cells and calcium. Our stomach and pancreas inhibit digestion while the adrenal glands stimulate the secretion of epinephrine. Adrenalin and dopamine levels rise, and the production of tears, salivation, and hearing is reduced. Tunnel vision may occur as our pupils dilate to improve visual acuity.
A freeze response may occur when there is a perceived threat to safety, connection, or dignity. (Amanda Blake, Body=Brain www.embright.org) In a freeze response, we may dissociate, play dead, or engage in passive avoidance. Our pupils contract and heart and breathing rates slow down.
When we respond to a perceived threat to safety, connection, or dignity by appeasing, we are attempting to accommodate or submit to minimize further danger. All of these responses are normal.
How fear processed in the brain
The amygdala plays a vital role in processing emotions, including fear. Trauma responses and memories are stored in the amygdala. The amygdala is closely related to the hippocampus (memory recall) and the prefrontal cortex, which help the brain interpret the perceived threat. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-happens-brain-feel-fear-180966992/) When the amygdala is activated, it triggers the hypothalamus, which prompts the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland connects the nervous system to the endocrine (hormonal) system. Once the adrenal gland activates, epinephrine flows to the bloodstream. The body then releases cortisol and over 1,400 other chemicals that negatively affect the body. (HeartMath® Training)
Chronic fear impacts us
In my last article, I wrote that “if we continue to experience an emotion for hours or days, it will become a mood. Over time, if we stay in that mood, it will become a temperament and eventually a personality trait.” (https://livingupstatesc.com/being-compassionate-in-a-time-of-crisis/) Additionally, when we live in constant fear, our bodies, mental health, brain function, and memory can suffer.
- Physical Health
Chronic fear weakens our immune system, which makes us more susceptible to viruses and bacterial infections. It can also affect our cardiovascular health and create gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and even irritable bowel syndrome. Living in fear for an extended time can lead to premature aging and early death.
- Mental Health
Feeling constant perceived threat can lead to fatigue and serious diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Brain Function
The ability to regulate emotions, read non-verbal clues, reflect before responding, and act ethically are all processes in the brain that can be disrupted. Chronic fear leads to poor decision making, intense emotions, and inappropriate reactions.
The hippocampus (memory recall) can be damaged, which impairs the formation of long-term memories. Regulating fear becomes more difficult. (https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/impact-fear-and-anxiety)
Shifting from Chronic Fear
Thankfully, there are many easy actions we can take to minimize the effects of fear in our lives. It is impossible to live in fear and, at the same time, experience the good in the present moment. Below is a partial list of specific actions we can take to minimize the intensity. Trust your heart and pick a couple of practices that appeal to you.
- Be aware of your emotions for a few minutes. We can’t run from them, but when we face them, they lose their intensity.
- Address fear by talking about it, writing about it, or merely thinking about it with curiosity. When we pay attention, we can ask ourselves questions like, “How is this emotion serving me?” or “What action can I take to create good at this moment?” or “What can this teach me?”
- Move your body. Dance, Run, Walk, engage in a physical exertion that pushes you beyond your perceived limits.
- Turn off the news. Today’s news and is designed to keep you watching. Pay attention to how you feel when you are listening to the press. If it elicits fear, limit the amount of time you watch each day.
- Limit social media. Pay attention to sensations in your body as you scroll and read posts. Block or hide posts that cause you to feel fearful.
- Take slow, deep breaths. These breaths signal to the brain that we are safe, and the intensity of the emotion diminishes.
- Reach out to friends or loved ones.
- Write down what you are thankful for in your life. Keep the list out so that you can add to it when things come to mind. Review the list when you are in an uncomfortable place.
- Allow yourself to reflect on what you are thankful for and notice when the feeling of gratitude shifts you from fear.
- The brain does not know the difference between fake laughter and real laughter. Watch a laughter yoga video on YouTube if you need help stimulating laughter. Watch a favorite comedy. Remember and share funny stories of things that happened in your past.
- Reflect on times when you have felt strong, secure, and courageous.
- Change your body posture. Stand up and assume a powerful pose and hold it for three minutes.
- Be kind to yourself. Engage in favorite activities that make you feel alive. What do you do that makes you completely lose track of time?
- Question your thoughts. Just because you think them, doesn’t mean they are true.
- Reread a favorite book.
- Eat a healthy diet. Avoid sugar.
- Help others – get creative in this time of isolation.
- Pray for guidance and peace.
- Seek out a mentor or a coach.
- Trust your inner wisdom.
By engaging in the activities listed above, we can regulate our emotions, manage our energy, and reduce stress. Fear is external but can become internal, which becomes anxiety.
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