The fear factor’ in humans is a biological survival tool. Also known as the fight or flight’ impulse, it was designed to help us, in situations that are perceived to be a threat to us, to either flee, or fight our way out. The body preps’ itself for the impending fight or flight by increasing the heart rate, which allows more oxygen to be pumped throughout the body, while the internal cooling mechanism of the body, i.e. the sweat glands, also accelerates. This allows us to exert a great deal of physical energy quickly. The eyes will dilate, letting more light in (for clearer vision), and muscles in the legs and arms will tighten in preparation for a physical fight, or arduous escape.
Thus, fear can be seen as natural. However, this natural, biological impulse can go awry and the result is anxiety, panic attacks and other disorders. It’s not surprising that a panic attack has the same physical symptoms that genuine fear would provoke rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and excessive sweating.
But what causes the fear factor to go awry in some people? Theories abound, but it’s clear that in today’s high pressured, media-saturated world, fear is often a prevalent theme. Turn on the news and there are always stories about impending terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or mindless, senseless acts of criminality and cruelty. People are peppered endlessly with things that they should fear food that is tainted, diseases that seem to be caused by anything and everything and statistics that make it seem like just surviving the day is a minor miracle.
Not surprisingly, it’s easy to develop anxieties about certain things, and then to have those anxieties feed upon itself in a vicious cycle. For instance, someone may have anxiety about driving on the highway, and the body reacts to this anxiety by increasing the heart rate. In turn, the person thinks s/he may be having a heart attack, which produces even more anxiety, which triggers a greater response from the body’s fear impulse. In the end, the person may end up hyperventilating in their driveway, and the mere thought of having to drive again can produce the same frightening response. In short, you can scare yourself silly.
But it’s not simply a matter of willing yourself to not be afraid. Just like you can’t will yourself not to have a heart attack, stroke or other physical ailment, fear disorders are both a psychological and physiological problem and the treatment requires a two pronged approach. Simply medicating the person with anti-depressants is not enough to remove the now-ingrained fear in their psyche, and psychotherapy alone may not be enough to counter the physiological effects that accompany the panic and anxiety attacks. Furthermore, the body’s fear impulse exists for a reason and completing suppressing it would be detrimental to the person. In other words, you don’t want to have someone who’s completely fearless, to the point that they’ll endanger themselves or others.
In the end, conquering one’s fear is a complex issue and requires synchronizing the mind and body in a way that allows us to continue to thrive in our environment, but without having the environment overwhelming us with fear.