What is fear? Fear is one of the most primal human emotions. It functions much like an instinct and is deeply programmed into our nervous system.
Throughout much of history and in all cultures, fear has played a key role in our social interactions. From the time that we are babies, fear is already built into our cognitive and emotional systems. Through much of our literature, movies, television, music and other culture, we are constantly being conditioned by the mass media to think certain things based on the emotions of fear we are feeling at the moment.
When we experience fear, it is an extremely complicated emotion. It has both an emotional component and a physiological component. The physiological part includes the emergency response system of the human body. This system is triggered when our body receives direct damage or when there is perceived physical threat. This physiological component of fear is built into our brains from the amygdala, which is part of our central nervous system.
The amygdala is both a highly organized and highly functional part of the human brain. The goal of the amygdala is to ensure that life is continuing and that our survival is always present. In the context of what is fear, the amygdala has evolved to respond when we experience a threatening situation by releasing chemicals such as neuropeptides, which are primarily synthetically produced in the brain, and other hormones such as cortisol. The purpose of these hormones is to rapidly jump-start the body’s natural healing process.
However, when we fail to protect ourselves, or the threat we experience is not dire, the amygdala quickly returns to its “fight or flight” mode. This results in excessive amounts of cortisol being released and an increased heart rate. The problem is that while these hormones are released for the purpose of rapid emergency response, they also heighten anxiety and reduce our sense of control. When this occurs, the result is that our brains are less able to think about or even remember what happened as events unfold in real time. This can lead to panic attacks and potentially develop into PTSD (pre-traumatic stress disorder). If this happens, it is important that we recognize the difference between what is fear and what is PTSD.
What is fear is a learned human response that can be overcome with effective skills training and support from our peers or therapists. What is PTSD is the result of an event that escalates an existing condition, such as abusive physical or sexual behavior, or a life threatening experience. Through a mental health professional’s understanding and expertise, you can learn how to control your amygdala so that it no longer controls you.