Fear is an emotion that results from the perception of threat. It is a basic human instinct that prepares our bodies to respond to perceived threats through fight or flight. Seen in this perspective, fear appears to be beneficial, as it helps to keep us safe from harm. However, when this fear becomes constant because of perceived dangers or threats that may be imaginary, it can actually harm our body and mind. Whether felt constantly or just once, fear is generally an unpleasant emotion.
Fear is good and healthy for the body
Fear is a natural and healthy emotion as long as it is used by the body to create an alert for the individual. In fact, it was this fear that kept humans on their toes and totally alert to the dangers lurking in the environment when we lived in caves and faced threats from wild animals. But this healthy fear that serves the purpose of protecting us is only relevant in a very limited number of situations in modern life. We now live in a much safer and secure world, inside brick and mortar structures, away from not just wild creatures but also criminals and the elements.
Constant fear in present times can therefore easily evolve from healthy fear to unhealthy fear. This emotion is also referred to as pathological fear as it has underlying physiological causes. It can result in a behavior that is often exaggerated and violent.
Fear can become associated with many things that later become stimuli themselves
You become afraid of someone or something that you believe can be dangerous or threatening to you. Anxiety can be real or realistic but it is also imaginary and sometimes based upon past experiences. People recall their own and others’ painful experiences and then inject these feelings into present situations. In fact, it is not just people and situations that can trigger our fears, but also sights, sounds, weather conditions, times of days, colors, and odors. When we associate a particular stimuli with fear, we become fearful even in seemingly harmless situations when these stimuli are present.
People can develop irrational fears, or phobias, where they react in an extreme way because of a perceived but often unfounded threat.
Physiological changes in the body brought on by fear
Whether the fear is real or imaginary (rational or irrational), our bodies become ready to face the perceived threat. In response to the emotion of fear, our bodies shut down or slow down many functions and sharpen or increases other functions that are necessary for survival. Physiologically speaking, these are some of the changes that take place inside the body when we feel threatened:
- Improved eyesight (to get a clear view of things)
- Increased blood flow to the muscles (to help run fast)
- Release of hormones in the amygdala inside brain (to improve focus)
- Increase in heart rate (to prepare for instant action)
Constant fear can be harmful to us
Chronic fear, or the condition where an individual remains in a state of constant fear, can have a severe impact on physical and mental health. Chronic fear greatly increases the chances of cardiovascular damage, and can lead to gastric ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and decreased fertility. Men and women who unable to become parents tend to compound their infertility problem by constantly thinking about it and becoming fearful of what others might think about their inability.
Other ways in which fear can harm an individual
Fear may start as a harmless emotion, but when it is experienced frequently, there is an increased risk of damage to certain parts of the brain, especially the hippocampus. When this happens, it becomes even more difficult for a person to control or regulate their fear, and the anxiety can cause severe harm to body and mind over time.
Anxiety caused by fears can lead to hypertension, increased blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels. Fear can not only impair thinking but also behavior in different situations, and causes long-term negative impacts on physical, mental, and psychological health. Some of the negative effects of chronic fear that become visible over a period of time are:
- Chronic fatigue
- Premature graying and ageing
- Shrinking social circle and social activities
- Hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases
- Gastrointestinal disorders and gastric ulcers
It is common fore people to seek medical help for their physical symptoms and take medicine to alleviate them. However, it would also be beneficial to look into the reasons causing the anxiety rather than only treating the physical symptoms.