Friday, 25 April 2014

Confronting Fear

Emotions add spice to our lives. Psychologists have spent years of research in understanding the causes and effects of emotions on human activity, both physical and mental. One of the most intriguing is the emotion of fear. Psychologists define fear as the emotional response to an alleged threat; simply the awareness and anticipation of perceived danger. Self-preservation is one of the primal urges of mankind and fear is the cause of the survival instinct against any potential external threat. Fear is one feeling that brings about a lot of physical activity in the human body. Some of them may be faster heart beat, dryness in the mouth because of the improper functioning of the salivary glands, sweating (especially in the palms), tightness in the abdomen etc.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the visceral functions of the human body. Its two responses that keep the functions of the body in balance are sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic responses allow the body to function under duress. Parasympathetic allows the body to repose and relax, thereby having an absolutely opposite effect on the body from that of the sympathetic. Fear can be better understood as one of the conditions stimulated by sympathetic responses in the body. The response is caused by the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and the steroid cortisol.

The process is always physical, chemical and then rational. As soon as the body comes in contact with an external fear stimulant, the sympathetic responses of the body are activated resulting in the release of chemicals. Every time a person encounters a situation where he experiences fear, the human mind chooses between two options, fight or flight. In order to prepare itself for the fight-or-flight mode, the body automatically performs a number of functions so as to be ready for either a quick action or a quick escape.
  1. The heart rate increases and pumps more blood to the muscles and brain
  2. The air intake in the lungs is faster in order to supply oxygen to the body
  3. The pupils of the eyes dilate to improve vision
  4. The activity in the digestive and urinary systems slows down for those particular moments to facilitate the mind to concentrate on the fearful thing at hand. 
The third step is rational, where the mind reasons whether the stimulant is actually harmful or not. Sometimes, the same situation or physical condition can be experienced without any apparent stimulant, person or situation. Such a condition is termed as 'Anxiety'. Fear holds a close relation with many phenomena, such as, worry, caution, horror, and panic.

The intensity of fear varies. It is a part of evolution for human beings. Most of the time fear depends on the conditioning of a child's mind. Conditioned fear infuses dread for otherwise harmless and inconsequential things being associated with danger. Past experiences also serve as conditioners. For instance, once a child is hurt as a result of burning his finger after touching a hot pan, he invariably takes precaution the next time. This is termed as the mildest forms of fear; precaution. Suppose a child has experienced being shut alone in an elevator, he may develop claustrophobia in the later years of life. This is a more intensified feeling of fear. A phobia can rouse frustration to the extremes. Experiences of fear may be forgotten by the conscious state of mind but can be stored in the unconscious and may resurface as nightmares. Such a situation may lead to paranoia. Extreme fear can lead to many pathological conditions such as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Unconditioned fear is instinctive. It cannot be learnt, rather, it is more of a heritage from our ancestors.

Research has revealed that a person feeds his own fear. People are social by nature. The most deep rooted fear of man lies in 'being isolated'. This has bred the apprehensions of being abandoned, losing security and ones identity, feelings of inferiority and discrimination, losing face etc. These feelings often incite people to behave irrationally. Much of the anti-social behavior of people is a direct consequence of these fears. However, fear can prove to be healthy too. Psychologists term degrees of fear as 'good' or 'bad'. The fear of uncontrollable things is only upsetting; however, if there is room for improvement induced by fear, it is a much healthier condition of fear. For example, the fear of being humiliated may lead a student to work harder for his/her exams and attain a better result.

To get rid of fear, it's important to face it first. The best way to tackle fear is being aware of the nature of it; being aware of the kind of feelings it arouses and what are the outcomes of it. There are many behavioral techniques devised by psychologists to reduce the feelings of fear and thereby reduce stress. Most importantly, it is necessary to understand and accept the fact that everyone has the same underlying fears. This feeling of empathy helps us to deal with fear in a much better manner and get results faster.

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