Fear is all around us, even if we don’t call it that. I tell my labmates I’m stressed and my parents I’m frustrated with graduate school. In reality, what I’m feeling is fear that I’m not working hard enough and fear that I’m not smart enough. But the body doesn’t lie, when you feel these things it can at times be a physical response that we owe to a tiny nugget in your brain called the amygdala.
These very primitive parts of our brain are meant to protect us and are likely the reason our species has survived and thrived throughout time. We are consciously aware that we have these defense mechanisms but we might assume that in todays’ modern times, we won’t have these responses as often. I often wrongly assume this and it prevents me from making sense of these stress responses when they happen. Maybe if we can better understand them, we won’t overreact during our daily lives.
So what exactly is happening? When we experience something new or uncertain, or something that resembles a dangerous situation from our past, our amygdala is triggered to react. It triggers the body to increase heart rate and blood pressure and subsequently releases a slew of stress hormones. You may experience other things like tense muscles, dilated pupils, and increased breathing. It’s fine if there’s a snake in your bed but if you’re prepping for a meeting with your boss or you’re on a first date, it’s not so clear how this response would help you out.
It can be debilitating to allow your fear response to run your life, leading to issues like social anxiety, insomnia, and hypochondria. There are a few studies that link anxiety with genetics so some people are predisposed to having less control over their fear response than others. This can be helpful to see how we all can respond differently to life’s stressors.
There is a cyclical effect on fear response. When we are in a constant state of fear, the hormone cortisol is constantly being pumped into our bloodstream. This can cause us to have a difficult time listening to our higher brain and learning from our environment. While low and moderate levels of cortisol can be good for learning and memory, high cortisol levels aren’t conducive with learning. This can lead to a stressful situation becoming worse and can lead to a prolonged stress response.
For many people, reading about climate change or the current political climate can incite fear. What is going to happen to our world? Why are people so divided? Perhaps these questions are really asking, am I safe? How uncertain is my future? Will my loved ones be okay? These are not trivial questions and the uncertainty of it, unsurprisingly, can lead many people to experience physical manifestations of fear when triggered by the news or social media. Many think this fear is justified and that we need a constant state of fear to trigger us into reaction, but for some of us that are unable discern between a fear response for a real imminent danger and a potential threat that isn’t likely, it can be very stressful.
What are we to do when we are feeling this fear, whether it is real or potential? Some argue that the best reaction is just to acknowledge what you are feeling. Acceptance and commitment therapy encourages this train of thought and research shows that the mere acknowledgement of fear deflates the effect of the amygdala and allows us to engage higher types of thinking when considering values and life’s meaning.
I’ve found this to be true for myself. When I’m scared of a big deadline looming or a committee meeting approaching, I find it helpful to tell the people around me of the fears. Instead of calling it stress, I admit that I’m scared I might not be smart enough to answer all the questions or good enough for whatever thing I’m applying for. Hearing it out loud helps me see how ridiculous it might be and often, sharing these vulnerable thoughts can be the most courageous thing you can do!
Peer edited by Jenna Beam and Sean Gay