Rethinking Fear

It’s all about perspective.

Posted Feb 01, 2018

By Jason Osher, PhD, guest contributor

Imagine the following scenario:  You are hiking in the woods on a lovely Spring day when all of a sudden you instinctively freeze, realizing only after that you had heard a rustling in the woods ahead of you. In this moment, your body’s stress response has kicked into gear, preparing you for what’s to come.

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First, let us take a moment to examine what is happening in your brain.  Soundwaves traveling away from the bushes in front of you make their way into your ear, causing vibration of your eardrum, which leads to a series of complex movements in the smallest bones of your body (i.e., malleus, incus and stapes).  These movements cause vibration in the fluid-filled cochlea, bending the various hair-cells that translate this vibration into an electrical signal. This signal then travels into your brain for further processing, such as identifying what it is that you’ve just heard. However, at some point before that, conscious awareness happens, part of that signal veers off with a different goal in mind—namely to identify whether the incoming signal represents a threat to you. This is mainly carried out in the amygdala, which after identifying a potential threat signals the hypothalamus to initiate flight or fight responses (e.g., increased heart rate, dilation of the pupils, elevated blood pressure). 

Now let us imagine a different scenario: You are sitting at your desk at work after just hearing that a potential client has decided to work with a rival company. You know that your boss, who tends not to take bad news well, will be reaching out to you soon to discuss it. Just then the phone rings and you jump in your seat.

In looking at your body’s response to this situation, you would see an almost identical reaction. The sound of the phone ringing triggers the same sequence of events as the rustling sound in the scenario above, eventually leading to similar flight or fight responses (e.g., increased heart rate, etc…).

Source: iStock

Let us imagine one final scenario: You are sitting in a movie theater watching the newest horror flick on the big screen. The scene is not particularly tense, with two characters finishing a conversation, about to part ways. As one of the characters walks away, a piano suddenly falls on the sidewalk, narrowly missing them. In this moment, you jump in your seat, only able to calm down after seeing that no harm has come to them (yet…). 

If we looked at your brain in this moment, we would again see the same cascade of events. Although our bodies have almost identical reactions to these situations, we experience them very differently. In the first scenario, we may believe this is a life or death situation, unsure of whether a bear or deer made the noise in the woods. In the second, we’ll likely experience this as fear over our boss’s reaction and the possibility of being fired. In the final scenario, we’ll see it as entertaining and are excited to see what comes next. However, from the brain’s perspective, there is no difference between any of these scenarios when initially perceived. 

Indeed, our brains have evolved a very efficient, quick-and-dirty, early detection system, which functions parallel to our conscious processing of events. This allows the brain to quickly initiate responses that lead to a greater likelihood of survival. If we had to wait for higher level processing before initiating responses, we would likely not have survived as long as we have. In looking at it this way, we can see that the main difference between our experiences of these scenarios is the meaning we are associating with the stimuli after they have been perceived. 

Thinking about our responses in this way, we may be able to take a different stance when it comes to fear. Indeed, we should be thankful that our brain’s early detection system is as effective as it is and we should feel lucky when it works as intended. If we are able to view these changes as beneficial and as preparing us to respond effectively to whatever challenges we face, fear might be less debilitating in situations where there is no actual danger (e.g., at the office). Supporting this notion is some interesting research on our perceptions to a closely related experience - stress. Studies have shown that the perception that stress is detrimental to your health plays a significant role in the potential negative impact stress has in our everyday lives and that individuals who view stress as a healthy reaction have many fewer stress-related problems. Taken together, overcoming fear may be less about trying not to be afraid and more about seeing your fear as your brain preparing you for anything that life throws at you.   

Jason Osher, PhD, is the director of the neuropsychology concentration and assistant professor in the clinical psychology department at William James College, the largest psychology institution in New England.