Mind

Understanding Anxiety: How And Why We Experience Fear

Imagine this: you’re home alone, it’s dark and you hear a noise. It sounds like the rattle of a door but you aren’t expecting anyone. For a brief moment your heart races, your stomach lurches and your skin breaks out in a cold sweat. A close inspection will tell you that the wind is the most likely culprit, yet for a few fleeting moments you experience the panic we become so accustomed to in times of fear. So what is it that makes our body react in such a way to an otherwise harmless noise?

Well fear and anxiety are emotions that predate even the human species, but due to evolution are hardwired into our biology. The fear you experience in even the most commonplace situations is for one very good reason: survival. The human species, along with its animal counterparts, are around today because millions of years of evolution have embedded all living creatures with the ability to protect themselves from danger. Long ago, the earliest humans experienced the flight-or-flight response when faced with a dangerous animal. Today we experience the same response although the stimulus may be very different. Strange noises, oncoming traffic and taking a plane journey are just some of the modern day threats that our inbuilt protection system tries to prepare us for.

The fight-or-flight response is the first stage of fear. It happens unconsciously in response to a perceived threat; one as harmless as a noise. It’s not until your system has had a few moments to analyse the situation that it sends a signal to our brain and body to shut the fight-or-flight response down. It is when this happens that our heart rate begins to normalise and our breathing stabilises.

For some, this system is more active than others. Whilst we are all born will the ability to respond threatening situations, our environment teaches us to deal with them in different ways. This process of conditioning, picking up on cues from people and imitating their response, is the reason some of us fear flying whilst others fear sea travel. Importantly, conditioning also happens as a result of the information we read about, listen to and see in our environment.

Fear is an inbuilt system designed to enable our survival. Although the feelings may be unpleasant, particularly if they are reoccurring, understanding that these are conditioned responses to perceived threats is one way to help them subside quicker. Take a deep breath, remember you are safe and let the troubling thoughts pass.

Image Source: morguefile (clarita)

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