We've all experienced fear at some point in our lives, whether by narrowly avoiding life threatening situations, facing our inhibitions or even attending a horror movie.
Fear is vital to our survival as human beings, it keeps us in check and ensures that we stay on the safe side of the fence. But what happens when fear gets the better of us, when it starts creeping into mundane daily affairs and limiting our daily movements?
What triggers fears
Let's delve into the fundamentals of fear. What triggers fear, what makes it tick? How does the brain process fear?
Once we've covered that we’ll need to understand the why. Why do we feel fear? What purpose does it serve? How does it help us?
Next we'll discover the effects of fear on our emotional well being, does being afraid hurt us? Is fear a negative emotion, what are the lasting effects of exposure to fear?
Lastly, how do we combat it? How do we control our fear? Why do we get scared in seemingly safe situations? What are some ways to treat anxiety and overburdening fear?
The 3 stages of fear:
- Psychological; this is the brain's actual chemical response to induce fear. The biological process in the brain to perceive and anticipate threats and trigger a fearful physical response for overcoming the danger.
- Physical; this is the physical response of the body to the chemical triggers activated by the brain. Once the brain has signaled to the body to be afraid, the body has systems in place to remove itself from the threat.
- Emotional; fearful situations leave us emotionally stimulated, possibly resulting in unwanted baggage. After we remove ourselves from the threat, the brain learns from the experience and prepares a response to anticipate the threat for the next time, however sometimes its anticipation is flawed.
What fears have to do with evolution
As one can imagine, the reason we evolved to experience fear is quite obvious.
Human evolution necessitated that we develop these instincts to survive, we are not the biggest nor the fastest animal in the jungle, so quick reaction was vital.
Remaining safe in a prehistoric environment meant coping with immediate life threatening predators, and other dangerous situations. For the brain to anticipate subtle cues that danger was imminent, it had to learn to read them and react extremely quickly.
A fearful response carries over to modern life, fast reaction times while driving or anticipating aggressive behavior in an individual can be the difference between life or death. Being able to read and respond to a situation is what keeps us alive. Fear is the rational response to a dangerous situation, it alerts the body to respond and survive.
How your brain processes fear
The Psychological explanation
We all know fear and its symptoms. Chills, panic or an upset stomach, a feeling of dread. We've felt it ourselves or seen it in others, but what is actually happening in the brain that triggers us to feel that way and why?
Like all activity in the brain, fear is a chemical reaction, it begins in a region of the brain called the amygdala, an almond shaped node in the temporal lobe of the brain.
The amygdala is an extremely sensitive emotional preceptor, it analyzes situations, either by reading facial expressions or sensing a dangerous predatory or life threatening situation. The amygdala anticipates danger far faster than our conscious mind could ever hope too. Within a hundredth of a second it signals the necessary muscles for a fight or flight response.
This response prioritizes certain biological systems and shuts down others. It focuses on heightened brain activity, dilated pupils and other necessary responses for quick thinking and even faster reaction times. It also shuts down the things that are not immediately necessary to survival.
Sometimes the body reacts to the threat before we even consciously acknowledge that there is a threat. The signals picked up by the brain are not always obvious, a sense of danger is often described, somehow the brain knew well before the victim that something bad was about to happen.
The Physical explanation
A fearful response manifests itself in one of two ways, fight or flight. The brain analyzes the dangerous situation and decides whether it can stay and fight its way out or run away to safety.
In a predatorial situation this may result in an individual standing their ground and using human intelligence to outsmart and overcome a predator. Conversely it may decide that the threat is too great and chances of survival are slim, so running is a safer option.
Nowadays most people do not encounter lions hunting them on a daily basis, and fear has taken a different meaning and use. However, the fundamental reasons remain the same, self preservation and survival, but this may come in different forms than actually running or fighting.
People may respond to fearful situations by using aggressive language or behavior to get out of it or they may back pedal and avoid confrontation altogether. Self preservation could mean maintaining a job or position and fear of losing it could result in aggression or meekness in an attempt to remain safe. The fundamental fight or flight response remains the same, only the situations have evolved.
The Emotional explanation
Lastly fear triggers a lasting emotional response, we learn and adapt to fear. Up until now we've covered fear as an animalistic prehistoric response to danger, however humans are far more complicated. Fear triggers emotions in humans, we learn from fear and even learn to enjoy fear!
One does not need to experience a fearful situation themselves to become fearful, as we just mentioned fear is emotional. We can learn fear, by witnessing someone be fearful we too may become fearful of the same situation. Other conscious warnings, like a beware sign or something similar, can trigger a subconscious fearful response.
Furthermore an initial fearful response can trigger a full blown fight or flight response, however routine exposure to the same situation will decrease the fear of that situation. People will get used to anything in time. Roller coasters get less scary with each pass or driving becomes easier the longer one drives. In fact fear can go a step further and become pleasure.
Why are people drawn to roller coasters or horror movies? Their subconscious is screaming at them to be afraid but their rational mind understands that they're not in any real danger. This juxtaposition can be so thrilling and exhilarating, people will intentionally seek it out.
When fear is not in your favor
Fear serves an obvious and important role in individual survival, it's integral to staying alive and keeping us out of danger. However everything in moderation, what happens when we are too afraid, or afraid in the wrong or irrational situations? What happens if our brain triggers a fight or flight response when there is no real danger?
This can be a common problem, most people know it is anxiety. Approximately 19% of people in the US alone suffer from anxiety. When fear manifests itself at the wrong times it can cause an individual much harm with a crippling effect. Anxiety can permeate into many aspects of an individual's life depending on the severity.
It can also manifest itself in many different variations called phobias. Approximately 19 million Americans suffer from one or more fear. People suffer from all sorts of irrational fears, like a fear of the dark, heights or dogs to name just a few. Social anxiety is another common one. Some of these fears can be traced back to a traumatic incident in a person's childhood or past.
However due to the complex nature of the human brain and the ability to learn fear from others , more often than not the origin of a fear can be difficult to trace. This has caused treatment of such fears to focus less on the past and more on the future.
Overcoming your fears with CBT, Exposure Therapy and VR
The treatment of fears has paved a new path in therapy called CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) a form of exposure therapy that focuses on confronting an individual with their fears.
CBT uses techniques that gradually expose the patient to their fear at a slow pace. They are guided through the fear and explained how their fear is irrational. They are asked to analyze their fear and understand what they are afraid of. The process is relatively quick and results can be expected within around 12 sessions.
The focus of CBT is overcoming fear through confrontation. In the past this included actually acclimating oneself in environments that scare them. They would have to climb to a roof or be introduced to a dog. While this practice yields results it can be difficult to achieve in practicality, therapy sessions do not usually facilitate such antics however important they may be. Time and travel constraints can also be a limiting factor. Recently a new tool has hit the market that solves a lot of these issues.
VR (Virtual Reality) offers the ability to immerse oneself into seemingly difficult or hard to reach environments. Its inherent immersive nature makes for a hyper realistic environment that has all sorts of uses in many different fields.
When it comes to overcoming your fears its use is obvious and invaluable. Being able to dive into a situation that terrifies you, with the option to leave with the click of a button, all from the safety of your own house, has profound implications.
Imagine you suffer from a fear of heights, it gets in the way of your day to day life, every time you cross an overpass or ride an elevator your heart pounds from your chest. You can never really attempt to overcome the fear, climbing to the edge of a roof is just too much to ask.
Now imagine you can simply slip on an Oculus VR headset and really climb a ladder or ride an open air elevator. The part of your brain that says be afraid will scream at you but your rational self will understand you are in your living room wearing a silly headset. In time, by exposing yourself to these situations you will begin to understand that just as your fear of a virtual elevator is irrational, so is your fear of a real elevator.
That is our BraVeR product in a nutshell, understanding that fear is simple, that there is nothing to be afraid of and by gradually going through the motions you too can overcome your fears. Be Better. Be BraVeR.