Most of us don’t view fear in a positive light. Fear is a strong emotion that can be scarring at its worst and at its best is still uncomfortable. That said, fear is not without benefits when it comes to our well-being and personal growth.

So, what causes fear? What types of fear do we all share? What does it mean for our bodies? Why do we feel fear physically? Take a deeper dive into the complexities of this often-overwhelming emotion and how you can view it in a more positive light.

What is Fear?

Fear is an emotion that has played a significant role in our evolution and survival. It can be crushingly strong and paralyzing, but it’s also necessary for our safety. In fact, some types of fear we experience today are still closely linked to our instinctual need for survival, such as the common fears of heights and insects.

Fear is an incredibly visceral reaction, meant throughout the years to keep us away from predators and give us the boost needed to fight when necessary. Today, the stimuli that cause fear are sometimes quite different, but the bodily response is the same. Whether fear is caused by something not life-threatening, such as a scary movie or an overwhelming meeting at work, or something more dangerous, such as standing on the edge of cliff, we still physically feel it.

While we may be able to push past fear in an intellectual way, what happens physically is largely automatic and can leave us feeling drained. That’s because, no matter the cause, our physiological response to fear can be intense.

What happens to our body when we encounter a scary event? Quite a bit.

How Do We Feel Fear Physically?

Like many other basic emotions, fear causes physiological reactions in our body. Fear starts in the brain and the physical effects throughout our body help us adjust so we can have the most effective response to a dangerous situation. On an instinctual level, our body is preparing us to fight or flee.

Fear starts in the part of the brain called the amygdala. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system.”

Because of the very automatic nature of the fear response, we usually experience it in three stages:

  1. Freeze: This reaction is rooted in our evolutionary response to keep us hidden from a predator. Your initial jump and stop response to triggering stimuli is automatic, meaning if you’re truly afraid, you can’t stop it.
  2. Run: Our next instinct is to get away from whatever is causing our fear. Adrenaline helps you move quickly away from the trigger.
  3. Fight: If you can’t get away from what’s causing your fear, your response is to fight. Adrenaline helps you in this stage, as well.

Of course, these days, when we feel fear, we don’t often have the need to hide from a predator, flee or fight. Still, the physical response we experience is the same.

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Most of the physical symptoms we experience when it comes to fear come from the changes in our cardiovascular system. Heart rate increases, and blood vessels constrict. Your respiratory rate increases, and adrenaline picks up. Your body is pushed into fight or flight mode and other organs can be affected, including the liver and pancreas.

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. Therefore, prolonged stress on the body from fear and anxiety can cause many other physical symptoms and affect your long-term health.

The effects on your body can be severe if fear is extreme. In fact, it is possible to be scared to death, although rare. “It is the sudden, unexpected things which tend to cause a dramatic increase in heart rate and blood pressure and put people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease at risk,” said Dr. Mark Estes, a cardiologist and professor of medicine.

Luckily, most fear is short-lived, but if you find yourself fearful regularly, it may be a good idea to reflect and seek help to move forward and avoid negative health effects.

Understanding and Working Through Fear

Fear can completely paralyze you and can be harmful to your health when prolonged or extreme, but it also has a lot of benefits. For example, fear heightens your sense of awareness and can sharpen your thinking. If used correctly, this can be helpful to overcoming obstacles in everyday life. Acknowledging fear but pushing past it and using it to grow is essential.

Here are some ways to use your fear and anxiety to perform better in the face of scary situations:

  • Acknowledge and learn from your fear. Everyone encounters fear-inducing situations. Even if you don’t act how you’d hoped in the moment, reflecting on why you found the situation so overwhelming can help you be better equipped to deal with a similar situation next time.
  • Understand it can be positive. Fear could be a sign that you’re doing things that are out of your comfort zone. Understanding that fear can be a sign that you’re challenging yourself can help you push through and find strength.
  • Grow to meet challenges. If something in your daily life is causing you fear, it might be a signal to seek self-betterment. Think about what you can do to meet the challenges causing fear, so you’re better prepared to meet them.
  • Gain pride. Overcoming fear is hard. It’s an automatic process that can make you freeze and leave you feeling drained. If you pushed through, reflect on your bravery and be proud.

If you’re interested in studying fear and brain psychology, our online bachelor’s degree in psychology leaves little to be afraid of. At the University of West Alabama, you can earn your degree entirely online at one of the state’s most affordable institutions. If you already hold a bachelor’s degree but would like to sharpen your scholarly research skills, you could benefit from our online master’s degree in experimental psychology.