What does science say about the effects of anxiety and fear on the brain? What happens on the physiological level when we experience these nasty sensations?
From a religious perspective, fear is a product of ignorance. People are not aware of their true nature. They don’t know that they are not dying. They don’t disappear; they don’t enter a state of non-existence after their death.
The fear of death is a mother to all other fears we experience. We are afraid of heights because we’re afraid we’re going to fall… and die. We’re afraid of hospitals because they remind us of sickness and death. Every single fear is related to this major uneasiness we all have in our subconscious mind.
Let’s leave spirituality aside, shall we? Not all of us believe in life after death, so we have to look for proven arguments and facts about the effects of anxiety and fear on our bodies.
What Does Science Say About Fear and Anxiety?
We can find the origins of fear and stress in the theory of evolution. Scientists proved that even the simplest single-cell organisms showed fear. This is a constantly present reaction throughout all living organisms, including vertebrates.
From this point of view, humankind couldn’t have survived without that trigger, which is crucial for taking adequate actions in dangerous situations.
If you’re not afraid of death, you won’t do anything when a bear attacks you in the forest. The instinct for survival, which is supported by fear, will make you shoot, shout, climb a tree, or do whatever else it takes to save yourself.
The only problem is: we experience fear not only in situations that justify it. A mother can be always afraid that something would happen to her children, although they are safe at school.
You might be completely terrified of an academic project although you have studied enough. This fear will block your ability to express what you already know. In this kind of situation, fear will block you from giving your best.
Fear has the power to prevent people from being happy, overall. When someone is afraid to the point when those emotions affect their daily lives, they are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
What Happens in the Brain? The Effects of Anxiety and Fear Explained
Research shows that the amygdala, an almond-shaped region of the brain, plays a crucial role in the automatic detection of threat and producing the sensation of fear. When this area of the brain was studied in animals, it was discovered that the animals did not respond to previously threatening stimuli when the amygdala was damaged.
In people, certain medical conditions (such as epilepsy) can cause amygdala damage. These patients are less responsive to threats, although they can still feel fear.
The amygdala is responsible for the body’s response to fear (such as a rapid pulse, voice cracking, or sweating). These reactions can occur even when we’re not aware of a present threat. Now, we’re talking about unjustified fear – an experience no one wants to have.
How does the brain produce fear?
After the brain processes information in diverse regions, the amygdala detects a threat. At that moment, the brain releases hormones (such as cortisol and adrenalin) and chemicals (such as serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and dopamine).
This chemical action in the brain warns the organism about the threat and all attention systems are highly aroused. According to Joseph E. LeDoux, an American neuroscientist, that can only happen in a brain with “autonoetic consciousness,” which is an ability to examine our own thoughts.
Do Scientists Understand Fear and Anxiety?
Scientists made a lot of progress in decoding the phenomena of fear and anxiety. First of all, we need to make a difference between these two reactions – fear is the physical, and anxiety is the psychological response to the danger the brain perceives.
The effects of anxiety on the brain and body are related to the biological level of the activity of the amygdala. Genetics, in relation to stress experienced in early life, make people prone to anxiety disorders.
Although the brain’s neural response to anxiety and fear is relatively understood, we still don’t have the ultimate treatment of disorders related to these reactions. Current treatments involve drugs that bind to large areas of the brain and lead to unwanted side effects.
Research scientists hope to develop a treatment that precisely affects the amygdala and its unnatural response to stimuli. Until then, we’re left with the attempt to become more conscious of our thoughts and the stimuli that make us afraid.
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