Fear is a necessary emotion that protects humans from harm by alerting us to danger and enabling us to respond through the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. However, when fear becomes chronic it can disable people and cripple their lives.
In this article, we shall examine fear, its source, and what can go terribly wrong when it is destructive.
The Neuroscience of Fear
Fear is an innate or inborn response to stimuli outside of the human body. It is vital to remember as you read that scientists do not fully understand the mechanism of fear in the brain, but through experimentation, they are beginning to understand more and more as the years pass.
The danger one encounters is first interpreted by the amygdala, a small almond-shaped region of the brain situated in the temporal lobe. The amygdala is responsible for detecting and helping the body respond to threats through the use of hormones.
Once the danger is noted the amygdala sends out chemical neurotransmitters to rev up the body’s defenses to make it ready to face the danger. The result is that we feel fear and respond through the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response.
Interestingly, the amygdala is also vital for the transferring and storing of memory via the hippocampus and this may be why the event that prompted the fear response may not be remembered later if at all.
The Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn Response
First termed the 4 fs, the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response or the stress response, by Pete Walker, these emotions are a primitive reaction to perceived fear. Perceived because the human brain can become trained to respond to fear through various methods, including dissociation, whether the stimulus is dangerous or not.
There are three stages to stress alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. During the alarm stage known as the fight or flight stage, our bodies are prepared by speaking up our heart rate, sending more blood to the arms and legs, and decreasing blood supply to areas that are not necessary such as the stomach and intestines.
For instance, you are walking down a dark street and you hear footsteps echoing around you. Instantly, your amygdala perceives danger. Later, maybe seconds, minutes or even hours afterward, you discover that the footsteps were yours and you heard them the way they sounded because they are bouncing off nearby buildings. Your amygdala did not wait for conscious thought, it reacted automatically and revved up your body to make it ready to respond with one of the 4 fs.
Fight or Flight. The fight or flight response is possibly the most primitive of the 4 fs. It is an evolutionary adaptation that has allowed humans to survive the dangers of our environment for generations. Humans needed fight or flight earlier than now because we were relatively helpless animals who were hunted and eaten as prey by other animals. Still, it is necessary to keep us safe from threats. When triggered, we can either turn and fight the danger or flee it to safety.
In highly traumatized individuals, the fight/flight response is enhanced by the belief that power and control will create safety, subjugate abandonment, and force someone to love you. Of course, none of these suppositions is true and in fact can restrict a person’s ability to form normal, healthy relationships.
The Freeze Response. Sometimes there is no escape from the dangers that would destroy us and that triggers another response called freeze. In the freeze response, our bodies become immobilized and we might dissociate away from the danger at hand. Freezing may allow the danger, such as a predator, pass us by without attacking.
According to Pete Walker, people who have experienced trauma, the freeze response causes individuals to associate danger with people and that safety can only be found when they are alone. The freeze response is also called the camouflage response, and when triggered causes the person to hide, isolate, and stay away from human contact as much as they can.
The Fawn Response. There is nothing “normal” about the fawn response as it is a learned reaction to abuse and neglect in childhood. The fawn response means that the abused, now adults, try to seek safety but becoming the person their potential mate, friend, etc. People using the fawn response subconsciously believe that the only way to gain and keep a relationship is to give up all of their needs, rights, and boundaries to serve those of others.
Fawning is the response of children who are trapped in their family situation and have no way to escape responding to fear, shame, and danger from their parents.
The Disastrous Effects of Fear from Childhood Trauma
As stated, fear is a natural response to danger that is first detected by the amygdala which readies the body through the use of stress hormones. However, what if one is afraid all of the time?
This is what can happen to children or adults who are continually triggered into experiencing the stress (fight/flight/freeze) response. Their bodies receive doses of stress hormones to ready them for fight/flight/freeze so often that their bodies never return to baseline. This constant triggering can cause a myriad of different physical and emotional problems.
A paper written by Felitti et. al1 found a strong correlation between early childhood trauma and physical problems include high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, and other problems that cause adults to die younger than they would have normally.
Indeed, chronic trauma in childhood can lead to emotional problems such as dissociative disorders, depression, borderline personality disorder and a number of other trauma-related mental health problems.
How Maladaptive Fear Limits Us
Maladaptive fear, fear that is not “normal” but instead damaging to one’s life, keeps people from achieving all they can and wish to be in their lives. The problem is that not only are our bodies and minds affected by chronic fear but also our day to day lives are deeply impacted.
It is exceedingly difficult to feel positive about ourselves and the world around us when the fear that was formed in the past invades our adult lives. The changes to who we are are enormously hurtful causing us to remain trapped inside afraid to emerge and interact with the world outside.
It isn’t only fear of others that childhood trauma causes, there is also an impending sense of doom as though our world will end at any moment. Traumatized adults feel out of control of their lives even when things are going okay. They feel the need to run although there is nothing to run from.
Fear, when it is maladaptive, makes people react in abnormal ways to everyday stress leading them to become even more isolated and feel that way even in a crowded room. Fear is the leading cause of loneliness.
Ways to Defeat Maladaptive Fear
While maladaptive fear is very limiting, there are things one can do to help themselves overcome it. These things include psychotherapy and practicing mindfulness.
Psychotherapy can be the greatest gift you can give yourself. It is vital, however, to find a therapist who is trained in trauma care, post-traumatic stress disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder who uses evidence-based treatment. Psychotherapy can help those traumatized in childhood change their brain structure by introducing and ingraining better coping mechanisms and helping the person find and face what happened so long ago that has made them afraid.
Mindfulness, when practiced correctly, added to the daily routine of someone who is chronically experiencing fear, face and deactivate the fear center of their brain. Mindfulness does this by strengthening and activating the thinking and emotion regulating centers of the brain through the use of breathing and staying in the moment. When one can remain in the moment in a calm and relaxed state, they are less likely to return to the fear-based feelings and behaviors they had before.
“Instead of saying, “I’m damaged, I’m broken, I have trust issues,” say “I’m healing, I’m discovering myself, I’m starting over.” ~ Horacio Jones
- Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., … & Marks, J. S. (2019). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 56(6), 774-786.