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The Science Behind: Fear

Imagine being attacked by a bear. A ferocious one. Trapped, not able to defend yourself from it. You are restless. Confused. Unsure of what to do. But most of all, you feel fear.

So what is fear?

Fear is an emotion that alerts us of the presence of danger. Fear can respond in two ways - emotional and biochemical. When we clash with our fear, our bodies naturally react in different ways. For example, sweating, an increase in heart rate, butterflies in the stomach, or high adrenaline levels. These biochemical responses make us exceedingly alert.

Our emotional response is more personal. What fear is to a person depends on the person's thoughts and perspective about fear. Some see it as thrilling. Because fear includes some of the same chemical reactions in our brain that happiness and excitement do, it can seem exciting to some people- like a horror movie.

A phobia is a fear as well: a specific fear directed towards a particular object/item or situation. There are five different categories of phobias: animals, environment, blood and injury (or anything related to that), a specific situation, or others, such as physical ones like vomiting, becoming ill, etc. Causes of phobias include experience (an experience one fears to endure again), trauma, or negative physical symptoms caused by the fear, like dizziness or stomachaches.

When fear occurs, breath rate and heart rate increase, muscles are pumped with blood and are ready to act if necessary to defend the body, central blood vessels around organs open up to consume oxygen and nutrients, and muscles tighten. In human metabolism, glucose levels in the blood increase, causing the storage of energy in case it needs to be used. Levels of white blood cells and calcium also increase.

Some common fears or phobias include Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders; Zoophobia, the fear of animals; Acrophobia, the fear of heights; Aerophobia, the fear of flying; Autophobia, the fear of being alone; Claustrophobia, the fear of being trapped in small spaces; and Hydrophobia, the fear of water.

Many phobias have a literal meaning, like hydrophobia. Hydro translates to water and phobia means fear. That is rearranged as fear of water. This is because the type of phobia (in this case: hydro) is based on a Greek or Latin word.

Other phobias are not as common as the ones listed above. An example is Pogonophobia: the fear of beards. It may seem unrealistic, but it is a true phobia. Others include Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia: the fear of long words, and Nomophobia: the fear of being without a phone.

If fear is interrupting a person's life, a qualified therapist can help. Therapists use what is known as “exposure therapy” to help people overcome their fears. Exposure therapy is steady and continuous exposure to one’s phobias in order to get them comfortable and less afraid of their phobia. Virtual reality is a beneficial tool for exposure therapy.

In conclusion, fear is a lot of things. It is an emotion, a chemical, and our body’s response to not feeling safe. It can be thrilling or overwhelming. Mild or extreme. Common or unusual. But remember, of all the things fear is, it is not undefeatable.

Sources: 1.





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