The Neuroscience of Fear: What’s Happening in Your Brain and How to Manage It
We know what different emotions feel like, but what's happening in our body and brain to make us feel the way we do?
Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, authors of Physical Intelligence, explain the brain chemistry of fear
Fear and anxiety may trigger uncomfortable physical symptoms and if chronic, it may be time to seek professional support – find your therapist here
We’ve all felt it in some form…our heart starts racing, we breathe more rapidly, break out in a sweat, cry out, freeze, run, feel tightness in our chest or gut…that’s fear. Fear affects us in different ways at different times – some of us even enjoy it and seek it out. However, there is a significant difference between the fear we feel when watching a scary movie vs. what we feel when being followed late at night. s we navigate the Covid 19 crisis, more of us than ever are experiencing fear in a negative way and looking for ways to manage it.
First, it’s important to understand what causes fear. Right now, hundreds of chemicals are racing through each of our bodies in our bloodstream and nervous system. Emotions are strands of chemicals, (neuropeptides with a negative or positive electrical charge), that dictate how we think, feel, speak, and behave. When we experience an emotion, it is because those neuropeptides are literally changing the chemistry of every cell in our body. A swell of oxytocin is felt as pride, a drain of dopamine as disappointment, a wave of adrenalin and dopamine as excitement, and a flood of cortisol and adrenalin as fear.
Perceived threats trigger our fight or flight response. Those threat signals that move in the brain from the amygdala to the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland, which secretes the hormone ACTH, and the adrenal glands, which release adrenalin. Those chemicals lead to the production of cortisol, which increases blood pressure and blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system in an effort to boost our energy and prepare our muscles for violent physical action. The signature feeling of adrenalin is excitement or fear. The signature feeling of cortisol is anxiety.
Most of us operate largely at the mercy of these chemicals, experiencing thoughts, reactions and emotions, without realising that we can strategically influence them. Detecting and actively managing the balance of those chemicals is something we call Physical Intelligence, which enables us to achieve more, stress less and live and work more happily.
If we don’t manage these waves of emotion, the charged molecules literally get stuck in our body like the wrong key stuck in a lock. Being aware of them, expressing them and acting upon them enables them to discharge. Both positive and negative emotions need expression. Sustained periods of being under pressure or in a ‘fight or flight’ environment, increases cortisol, making us more anxious – we ‘choke’ and make poor decisions – especially counterproductive in the midst of crisis.
To succeed in this “new normal,” we need to manage our threat response and find ways to feel empowered. These Physical Intelligence techniques will help:
Our stance and breathing patterns are critical for confidence and risk tolerance – and for building those qualities in others. Being physically ‘grounded’ helps us face our fears: feel the weight of your body on the ground, or in a chair, feeling rooted rather than ‘uptight’. Paced breathing is the most helpful technique to use the moment we feel anxiety.
Practising it for 10 minutes daily helps keep cortisol levels under control. Breathe diaphragmatically, in through the nose, out through the mouth with a steady count in and steady count out. In and out counts don’t have to match (e.g., 5 in/7 out or 7 in/7 out). A longer out-breath helps dispel CO2, which increases cortisol if it builds up in the base of the lungs, (CO2 is heavier than oxygen). Paced breathing with a longer out-breath is called Recovery Breathing, and is especially helpful if you’re feeling panicked.
Exercising releases steroids (testosterone, DHEA and HGH) in women and men that make us stronger and more confident. A robust nervous system and heart–brain function relies on physical fitness. Body movement enhances brain connections and function, improving mental focus.
Our altered living and working environment is forcing all of us to be more flexible and to engage in creative problem-solving – yet many of us are operating in an environment that affords us less physical movement, which limits mental flexibility. Our bodies are designed for movement, essential for health, mood and mindset – and for lowering cortisol.
Each morning, scan your body to determine areas of tension and identify stretches to release tension.
Stand up and shake out your arms and legs like Usain Bolt for ten seconds. Tension causes static states; movement creates change.
Don’t hold back the tears. When we cry, the diaphragm pulses, moving strongly up and down. This triggers the release of acetylcholine, the chemical that brings us back into balance. Cortisol levels drop, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine levels rise, physical tension dissipates and we feel ‘relief’. Crying (within reason) has a physiological purpose.
Taking care of yourself and effectively processing negative events so that we can regain optimism help us maintain a positive mindset and build our resilience.
Remain focused on simple things like physical fitness, good food, hydration, massage, sunshine, sleep (essential for brain function), and managing media exposure.
Limited physical contact can quickly decrease oxytocin levels, leaving us feeling isolated and even more stressed. When oxytocin drops, cortisol rises, negatively affecting our immune system. To boost oxytocin, stay in touch with your support system, communicate more openly, use more appreciative words, and build trust by being even more considerate of others. Who can you reach out to right now?
Meditation strengthens our immune system, increasing the amount of SIgA (Secretory Immunoglobulin Antibody) in our body, which thickens the mucous that lines the nose, mouth, trachea, lungs and gut. That thicker mucous makes it more difficult for viruses to penetrate our cells and bloodstream. Meditation apps can jumpstart your meditation practice. Imagine yourself healthy.
Endurance is about sustaining effort over the long-term. Right now, we are each in our own unique Endurance Tunnel. It may feel as if the walls of that tunnel are closing in on us, heightening our fears.
Simply remembering that we are part of a collective struggle, that this is a shared global experience, can boost oxytocin, helping to strengthen the walls of that tunnel and keep that light at the end burning brightly.
Identify things within your control (following health protocols, planning affordable meals, organising activities for your children, shopping for elderly neighbours, applying for unemployment, etc.) and establish milestones that will give you reasons to celebrate successes.
We may be in isolation, but we’re not alone. We need each other and are demonstrating that we’re there for each other now more than ever. Leverage that knowledge to help you face your fears.
Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton are the authors of Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster)