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Physical Reactions to Fear

By: Tim De Pass

In any given day we will experience a variety of emotions from anger, to sadness, to excitement. When faced with these emotions it is important to understand how our body reacts because not only will it help us identify our feelings, but it can also help cope if the emotions become too intense. Developing a deeper understanding of our physical reactions to emotions help us analyze our emotions diligently and this recognition will let us know when or if intervention is needed. Learning about our physical responses to emotions can lead to greater insight into our behaviour and a quicker intervention if necessary.

One of the most well documented physical reactions to emotions is the fight or flight response when we are facing a threat in our environment and experience fear. The fight or flight, or acute stress response, occurs in our sympathetic nervous system which begins to release hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) that increase our arousal levels. The amygdala, which processes emotion, sends a signal to the hypothalamus which then communicates and activates the sympathetic nervous system. This chemical response happens so quickly but you will be able to notice an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and an increased alertness in our senses. This is an evolutionary response to fear.

The flight or fight response was evolved as a survival mechanism for mammals when faced with life-threatening scenarios. However, humans have evolved over thousands of years and most of us are not faced with life-threatening situations every day. But this does not mean that this acute stress response rarely occurs. The fight or flight response occurs when we perceive anything in our environment as a terrifying threat. For some people that could be public speaking, or driving, or heights. Whatever the situation is, a frequent arousal of the fight or flight response can be extremely stressing on our body and mind.

These physical and biological responses to our environment are intertwined with our mental processing. Increased occurrences of fight or flight responses in seemingly innocuous situations may lead to states of panic which can develop into significant anxiety or mental health issues. This makes it important to identify these physical reactions in order to intervene in a timely fashion. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming the body after the significant threat has passed. Understanding this, it is imperative to find ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system when in situations where the fight or flight response is not needed and is causing significant panic. Behaviours or actions that help activate the parasympathetic nervous system is ultimately up to the individual to decide what works in helping them calm down. A common option that may help when in an unwanted scenario of the fight or flight response is a breathing exercise. By focusing on our breathing we can hope to interfere with the rapid breathing that comes with the acute stress response and in turn, lower our heart rate while bringing our arousal levels back to normal.

The fight or flight responses prepares us through bodily reactions to either fight or run. This is an automatic response in our body, but understanding when these responses happen and noticing how we react can provide valuable insight into our behaviour and emotions.

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