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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

Pain and Panic: The Demons behind Biological Fear

Lindsay Updegrove

"A variety of terms are used to describe fear. The Bible uses words like fear, afraid, terror, dread, anxious, tremble, shake, and quake over 850 times to portray this core human emotion. Healthcare professionals use terms like fear, anxiety, panic attack, and phobia to illuminate the spectrum of our fears." (2)

Our emotions are said to be the most subjective of all our biological components. It seems that we have a difficult time grasping them, and an even more difficult time controlling them. Fear seems to be one of the most challenging of our human emotions when it comes to trying to subdue it ourselves. When we see a creepy bug, or are caught off guard by an extremely loud noise, we jump before even thinking about it. It seems like a normal reaction, and then after the initial surprise we can assure ourselves that we are still alive, everything is fine. But what about people who have abnormal reactions to fears? People who develop a phobia that is not so easy to subdue?

These questions can be partly answered by looking at what happens in the brain when we are afraid. In an experience of danger the amygdale, a small part of the brain located behind both ears, is alerted. In response to the frightening stimulus, the amygdale sends signals to the circulatory system. Blood pressure goes up, heart rate speeds up, and muscles tense. Doesn't this response sound a lot like what we can see on the Discovery Channel? When a lion attacks, we can immediately see the antelope go into "defense mode." So basically, our initial reaction to fears is no different than the basic instincts of animals, an evolutionary response. (1)

But wait—animals do not, or CAN not get afraid of the same things that humans can. And I am fairly certain an antelope cannot be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Animals, for instance, do not live in fear that they might fail a test, or lose their job. These fears that humans develop that are not simply instinct reactions deal with another part of the brain, the cortex. Humans can use cognitive reasoning to assess whether or not we should feel afraid. Charles Darwin posed the question, "Does the reaction to fear precede the thought?" (3) The answer is yes. In studies, it has been shown that pathways from the cortex to the amygdale are weaker than those that lead from the amygdale to the cortex. For us, this means that we have the physical reaction, our heart races, before we can think about it. (1) In other words, when it comes to fear, emotion takes precedent over rationalization—no matter how much we may not like it.

Knowing how humans have complicated the experience of fear, I would expect that the emotion's presence would vary greatly from culture to culture, and from century to century. Tribes people of the African plains would probably rely more on the instinctual side of their fears when hunting large animals or defending themselves. In America today, we have more fear of a stock market crash than a charging wildebeest. However, in our society, many people, especially men, consider it a sign of weakness to admit they are afraid. Someone might have a prolonged fear that they will lose their job. They won't seek psychiatric help about it but their physician might find they have the physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder, such as high blood pressure or heart racing. (1)

It is estimated that about one-fifth of people have panic or anxiety disorders while about one-tenth have some kind of phobia. (3) A phobia is termed to be not just a recurring fear, but rather one that has a serious impact on a person's life and daily activities. For example, a phobia of heights might prohibit someone indefinitely from crossing a bridge or flying, making it nearly impossible to travel. Anxiety disorders and phobias are both very closely related to the phenomenon of fear, but develop in different ways. Our tendency to experience anxiety is probably genetic. Studies show that two out of three people with a panic disorder are not the only ones in their family to have it. (1) But this raises the question: Is a tendency toward fear and anxiety actually genetic, or simply suggested from parent to child? When doctors look at phobias, they are dealing with a specific form of fear or anxiety rather than a tendency to panic. So phobias are more associated with individual environmental experiences, fears that live on in our memory. (4) We are all familiar with the cultural image of the Vietnam War Veteran who panics every time he hears a loud noise. This is an example of one kind of panic disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is prolonged fear from a trauma, the most common example probably being a car accident. (1) So our individual experience of fear is somewhat influenced by our genes, but also by the many events that take place in our own lives.

Fear seems to work in mysterious ways. We often speak about "facing our fears" in order to get over them. To me this sounds a bit idealistic and cheesy, but it has been shown that exposure to a fear will reduce it, while letting it go will more likely intensify it. In fact, this form of therapy is often used in treating patients of phobia. People with phobias also often undergo PET scans to image how the individual's brain responds to the fear or anxiety-triggering stimulus. (3) Perhaps PET scans help scientists answer questions about phobias, but I still have questions about fear in general. When I am on the edge of my seat in a scary movie, and I just know the killer is going to strike at any moment, does that make me jump a little higher when he finally does appear? At least for me, the expectation of being scared seems to trigger a stronger response. Also, do people in cultures where there is a greater danger or lower life expectancy live in more fear and anxiety than Americans? Many scientist say that fear is not a cultural phenomenon, that the percentage of people from country to country that suffer from fear and anxiety deviates generally no more than three percent. But I still think that if I moved to a place like the Bahamas, my fear and anxiety levels would go way down. It seems that every culture associates fear with different things. For some, fear is the opposite of bravery. For others, it is the involuntary reaction that occurs when bombs can be heard dropping at night, a few towns over. I think that while our evolutionary reactions to fear function essentially in the same manner, the way that we live and deal with our own fears varies greatly from person to person.


1) Exploring your Brain: Fear and Anxiety. , A radio interview with three doctors about fear and anxiety and their related disorders.

2)C.A.R.E. , Non-profit Christian organization seeking to help people with stress and anxiety.

3)Fear Itself: ,An article about fear and anxiety disorders.

4) Scientific American: Ask the Experts: , Biology: Is our tendency to experience fear and anxiety genetic?

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