Fear. Should we run, fight, or think?
I was lazily wasting time at Zarraffas this afternoon, and while I was savouring the richness and depth of my triple masai mocha, I was filling the time by flicking through Facebook.
I came upon a blog post by one of the best thinkers and writers I’m personally acquainted with, one Ruth Limkin, who shared the story of how she was given an opportunity to snorkel in a pristine area of ocean in the South Pacific that is limited to only a handful of people, such is the fragile beauty of the ecosystem there. As she started swimming into the warm, calm, azure waters, she felt this sudden dread.
Five years ago in a similar situation, she misjudged the current, was swept into some coral, and sustained a laceration to her knee. This left a lot of blood in the water which, quite reasonably, made her think that she had suddenly become shark bait. She made it back to shore otherwise unscathed. But it left her with the implicit memory of that event.
This year, despite the obviously calm surroundings, she recalled that fear. Her brain told her to get out of there. She did manage to overcome her fear though, and enjoyed the snorkelling!
Her lesson was that the pain of yesterday can become todays fear, which robs tomorrow of its promise.
I don’t disagree with Ruth. I’m not intelligent enough to do that. But I guess I come from a more medical and analytical perspective of this phenomenon, and I wanted to flesh out her point a bit further.
We all feel it at sometime or another – your heart pounds faster and heavier in your chest. Your breathing gets faster. Your muscles tighten. And your brain either says, “Run” or “Fight”, or sometimes it says nothing at all and we simply freeze up.
The human fear response is both rational and irrational. We usually don’t understand why we are faced with conflicting realities of internal anxiety and external tranquility, feeling scared while looking at calm clear waters. Sometimes when we take a step back, we can gain some understanding of why we have reacted the way we did, and cognitively overcome our fear.
B-grade pop-psychologists make us believe that courage is the absence of fear, and that the way to move forward is to eliminate or repress your fears. But that approach is wrong for a couple of reasons.
There is a good reason why we have fear conditioning. There is a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is integral to emotional processing. Central to this is the amygdala, which is responsible for adding emotions to our experiences, especially fear and anger. When something happens that has real or perceived negative consequences (we experience pain, or we think that there is a high chance that we will experience pain) the amygdala pairs that aversive sensation with the memory of the total experience. This helps us learn from our mistakes .
For example, if a pre-historic man was walking through a forest and came across a sabre-toothed tiger, the fight-or-flight response would help him escape. But the amygdala would attach the memory of the emotion to the memory of the event itself. Next time the man walked through a similar forest, or even recalled that event in his mind, the emotion of the memory would also be recalled. This is why Ruth felt uneasy despite the lack of danger. Her surroundings triggered the emotional memory of the previous snorkelling experience.
But while unpleasant, fear does confer a survival advantage. Without the same emotion being recalled, we wouldn’t remember what situations were dangerous and which were safe. Recalling the emotion and realising there may be sabre-toothed tigers around, or strong currents and sharks, means that there is a much smaller chance of us becoming lunch.
There are two pathways in the brain that are involved in the fear response. The direct pathway goes from the senses to the amygdala, bypassing the thinking parts of our brain entirely. Again, this confers a survival advantage as the quicker you can prepare yourself for danger, the more likely you are to survive it. The signal is not properly analysed, but it doesn’t need to be. It is better to be wrong and live than to be right and eaten by something.
The second pathway from the senses to the cerebral cortex then back to the amygdala is more precise, but it is slower than the direct path. It can downgrade the fear response if it is not appropriate. Well, it can in most people. Anxiety and panic disorders arise when the balance between the direct and indirect pathways is skewed in the direction of the amygdala.
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, you should see a good GP. There are specific forms of psychological therapy that you may need to engage with. Some people also need medications to assist with the process.
For most people though, we can simply allow the recalled feeling of fear stop us from engaging in life. When we sense fear, the natural reaction is to run or fight. That is the direct pathway talking in our brain. The lesson from our neurobiology is that we have another choice. We can let our cerebral cortex do its job, we can think about the situation, and allow our higher functions to downgrade our primitive reactions.
We also need to understand that fear is ok. It is necessary, in fact. Without it, we wouldn’t adapt to our surroundings or learn from our mistakes. We should not avoid fear. We should not fight fear. But we should not let fear control us.
Nelson Mandela, a man who experienced great fear but greater hope, sums it up beautifully, and so gets the final word, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
 Dalgleish, T., The emotional brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2004. 5(7): p. 583-9.