The Anatomy of Fear

fearWomanHandsWhat is fear? Generally, it is your mind’s response to any stimulus it sees as a threat, danger, or harm. From a medical viewpoint, the amygdalae and organs in the limbic system detect danger and send signals which generate the emotion. Then that fear emotion triggers either a flight or fight response. Fear is supposed to be a good thing, a way for your body to protect itself by going into full alert mode. But that brings along with it a certain amount of unwanted baggage. People experiencing fear frequently can’t think straight. If you are being chased you want to think quickly on your feet, not have a brain cramp. Some people lose the ability to speak clearly. That waver or crack in your voice might be the difference between playing it cool enough for the bad guy to think you’re not on to him and death. Shaky hands might be able to fire a gun but I doubt they’ll hit the intended target.

fearKidWe are all born with two inbred fears: the fear of sudden loud noises and the fear of falling. Everything else you picked up somewhere along the way. Some fears are consistent with our age and change as we grow older. Young children are afraid of being alone and older adults are afraid of losing their independence. A 2005 Gallup poll listed the top five fears of 13 to 15 year olds were: 5. war 4. failure 3. death 2. spiders, and 1. terrorist attacks. Clearly, major events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks have a huge impact on our fears. The amygdalae actually save a database of images of fear situations from your past. This fear database is called upon first to invoke the emotion of fear. If you run into a situation similar to a fear situation from your past, you are alerted to stop and figure out how to avoid it.

What happens if you can’t avoid it or if the stimulus intensifies? Let’s say you have been fearRunningkidnapped and the kidnapper is pushing you closer to the edge of a roof or the center of a fire. As the fear intensifies your breathing speeds up, your blood flow slows down causing your hands to get cold, your stomach muscles tense causing digestion issues, and your brain is affected by hormonal increases and other chemical changes. You sweat, get dry mouth, and your hair may stand on end. Then your amygdalae start searching through those images of previous experiences for an escape route. All of this occurs before your conscious mind is even aware of the danger. It is all an instinctive reaction to previous fear events.

If you consistently come up empty when your amygdalae search for escape routes, you begin to experience health issues. High blood pressure, chronic fatigue, headaches, even stomach ulcers and arthritis may develop. What types of events might leave your mind so puzzled? There are three types of fear events: inherited, painful, and unknown. Inherited fears include the birth fears of falling and noise, but also include things like suffocation, drowning, vermin attacks, even stage fright. The root of stage fright comes from the inherent fear of being noticed, and thereafter attacked, by a predator. Pain roots include not only physical pain but pain from the loss of a loved one or an unpleasant psychological experience with a teacher or a bully. The unknown group of fears comes from such things as war and terrorism where the outcome is unclear, but can also include things like job loss.

fearLoveOkay so we know what fear is and what instills it in us. So what makes some of us yearn for more? Well the answer may lie in how we deal with fear. When fear impacts someone’s ability to carry on a normal life, they may seek out such answers. A person that fears water may be asked to confront that fear by first sticking their toe in the water, then working their way up from there. This is called desensitization. Prior to that however, the mere realization of the fear starts the healing process. Self-awareness has been proven to reduce the causes of fear. This is because the amygdalae are actually trumped by the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) – the attention center of the brain. Beyond awareness, mind control exercises such as meditation, relaxation, and even planning scenarios can be employed to reduce the fear response.

Riding a rollercoaster would be an insane undertaking if you didn’t know that the ride had been tested and retested and ridden by many people before you. There is comfort in watching the last group’s experience and seeing the smiles on their faces as they exit the car before you get on the ride. Reading a scary book puts your fears into a manageable group of events. You know that the crazed dog can’t actually leap out of the book and bite you. If it gets too intense, you simply close the book.

A century ago you might have found some written incidents leaving the detail to the imagination of the reader. Today frightening scenes are played out in much more graphic detail. Is this phenomenon preparing us with more escape routes or reducing the brain’s ability to alert us to potential dangers? Certainly as we age we have more opportunity to have experienced more and more of these fake fear scenarios. When we know there is no real danger to harm us, we continue take fear to much higher levels. Of course, being desensitized to fear does not mean that you enjoy it more, just that you are used to that particular fear.

fearLove2A professor at the University of Delaware, Marvin Zuckerman, cites differences in genetic and brain biochemistry that may identify the sensation-seeker. He theorizes that people seek fear experiences as a means of releasing neurochemicals in the brain’s pleasure center. This explains why some people want to bungee-jump while others avoid it like the plague. But the need to satisfy cravings for danger keeps increasing as each fear event is registered in the amygdalae.

So what’s all this mean to us horror, thriller, and suspense writers? Well to me it means we need to continue to build on the foundation fears that we know readers will relate to. But then we should be constantly seeking that new thrill ride for our readers. If you have a new fear experience for our over stimulated amygdalae we’d love to read it. Please email it to me at For complete submission requirements please visit us at the Bad Day Books section of Assent Publishing.

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