knows what itís like to be afraid.
slithers unexpectedly across the path ahead, and your body
automatically responds. You spring backward should it strike.
Your heart pounds, muscles tense, breath quickens. You begin
to perspire. All attention is on the snake.
the fear response, says Dr. Christa McIntyre-Rodriguez, head
of the undergraduate neuroscience program at the University of
Texas at Dallas.
primitive, physiological and emotional response to something
perceived as immediately dangerous, she says. Fear focuses our
attention and prepares us to act, making it essential to
protecting us from threats to our survival ó threats like a
poisonous snake or an out-of-control car speeding toward us.
sometimes, fear is unwarranted ó say, when you peer closer
at the snake and realize itís just a rubber hose. Other
times, fear remains longer than it should, as in the case of
post-traumatic stress disorder.
exactly do our brains process fear? Whatís the difference
between fear and anxiety? And how can we prevent either from
unnecessarily overwhelming us?
talked with three experts to find out.
something frightens us, the part of the brain called the
amygdala triggers the physiological response we know as fear,
explains McIntyre-Rodriguez. After the initial fear response,
the neocortex, a more recently evolved part of the brain thatís
larger in humans than in other vertebrates, then evaluates the
situation, drawing on the wisdom of the individual to
determine whether thereís really a danger, she says.
when you ask yourself: Do I need to be fearful of this? If
yes, how can I protect myself? If no, OK, I can calm down.
somebody jumps out at you in a haunted house. At first you
scream in shock, she says, but itís mere seconds before you
realize thereís no immediate threat. The next thing you
know, youíre laughing at yourself. Thatís the neocortex
doing its job.
really ruminate over these scary things because their
neocortex isnít as developed as an adultís," she
says. "They rely on their parents. They donít have the
wisdom of a fully developed brain."
fear is an immediate response, anxiety is the anticipation of
danger, she says.
of anxiety comes from some root fear," explains Dr. Alan
Podawiltz, chairman of psychiatry and behavioral health at the
University of North Texas Health Science Center and John Peter
Smith Health Network.
could be a fear of financial problems, fear of someone hurting
you, fear of flying, fear of snakes, fear of scary stories,
etc., he says.
prolonged anxiety, the cellular structures of the body
struggle under the constant cascade of hormones. That can lead
to physical problems, such as high blood pressure, lack of
appetite and loss of the desire to exercise, he says.
experts say, anxiety is a part of normal human emotional
experience, which means itís important to have ways to cope
before facing something fearful helps ease anxiety, Podawiltz
example, say youíre anxious before a job interview.
suggests first asking, "Are they going to kill me?"
So thereís no reason for me to have a fight-or-flight
response. Now, are they going to ask me about my work
experiences? Yes. So, I need to think about what experiences
are most appropriate for that setting."
what youíre going to be up against and how you will respond
helps your body counteract the fear response by slowing the
heart rate and relaxing the muscles.
preparing myself before I go into that arena," Podawiltz
says. "Itís like what teachers do before teaching a
class and what the military does before an operation Ö it
doesnít take away anxiety, but it provides better coping
mechanisms when the anxiety does occur."
like yoga and meditation help in the same way, he says.
attempt to not think about it!" adds Dr. Alicia Meuret,
associate professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety
and Depression Research Center at Southern Methodist
email, she explains the tangled logic behind this: "By
trying not to think about it, you will need to think about
whether you are thinking about it ó which will massively
increase the amount of thinking about it."
Meuret suggests calming irrational fears by considering the
likelihood of the worst-case outcome, which might be rather
adds, for some people, anxiety can become more frequent, occur
at unreasonable times or have an intensity out of proportion
relative to the actual danger. In these cases, she says,
treatments, such as psychosocial interventions and medication,
though it often seems that what patients with an anxiety
disorder are fearful about is trivial, the disorder itself is
not," Meuret says. "It can be extremely disabling
and is associated with immense social and economic
asked what he fears, Podawiltz says heís afraid of speaking
in front of crowds.
mentally preparing himself before a speech, he also calms
himself during the talk by giving himself a physical cue to
right hand, he touches his finger to his thumb. To the
audience, it looks like heís merely pointing, but really, heís
pausing, taking a breath and giving himself a mental message
what?" asks Podawiltz. "My anxiety lowers."
the Ebola scare in Dallas, McIntyre-Rodriguez says sheís
felt fearful of germs. To cope, she reminds herself that itís
helpful to fear germs because that fear reminds her to wash
her hands and not touch dirty things.
evaluates the risk of encountering the virus with the rewards
of experiencing life.
all, she says, "We have to accept risk in