‘Tis the season for something scary, right? As we head towards Halloween we love thinking about the science behind what makes us so scared and why? Evolution's done some pretty awesome things to help us survive, including giving us the ability to get scared. With that said, let’s ask a very fundamental question, why do we get scared? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.
Everyone is aware of getting scared, right? Horror movies, things that jump out at you, or even a big dog barking right at you can all be pretty scary to the average person. Why we get scared could be answered in a myriad of ways, but basically its our body and brain trying to survive or cope with a perceived threat.
Scientists have looked into this topic and use two major categories, fear and anxiety. Sure, sometimes these two overlap, but a lot of the studies done can at least teach us that these are two pretty big buckets in the category of how we work through being scared.
When there’s an external threat our body reacts by going into fear mode. This is not just for us humans, this fight or flight reaction is inherent in nearly every animal, after all nothing wants to be eaten, right? The earliest known creatures to have this reaction would be some of the first crustaceans and arthropods, which means reactions based on fear have been around for about 545 million years at this point! For us humans, our ancestors passed this on to us via genetics allowing us to enact survival instincts when a rhino was charging our way or if one were trying to avoid becoming a lion’s dinner.
When that fight or flight fear kicks in, our brain actually goes into a panic mode and shuts down the brain’s rational processing area called the amygdala. This also increases heart rate and increases blood flow to your larger muscles and extremities. Basically, your brain is getting your body physically ready to react!
Then on the other end of the spectrum we have anxiety! This deals with when you have a reaction to a perceived threat to facilitate coping with an adverse or unexpected situation. Anxiety comes into play for situations involving social hierarchy, change in comfort levels, and other internally driven variables. This could include the nerve racking feelings that come along with worrying about losing one's job, the jittery feeling after fighting with a loved one,and so on. Anxiety's impacts on the body involve loosing sleep, feeling dizzy, nausea, among others. Breathing practices, meditation, and looking for the evidence before you panic and react are a few ways that you can help deal with anxieties.
Regardless, both fear and anxiety are adaptive qualities for us humans to survive or cope in an every changing and ever uncertain world. Remember folks, the only thing we have to fear…is fear itself…and sharks, bears, heights, clowns, getting into a relationship, buying a house, that angry dog down the street, being trapped in elevators, and so on.