Written by Josh Ferguson

You scream. You shiver. You cry and cradle yourself in the corner of the room.

A racing heart. A sudden rush of sweat. Trembling skin as a cold wind sweeps through you.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you are scared for your life. You may have just seen a truly terrifying film, or your sibling was secretly hiding in the bedroom wardrobe and they’ve finally burst out, shrieking at the top of their lungs. Or you may genuinely be running away from a knife-wielding maniac. Whatever the cause, you are experiencing fear.
But why is this?

Fear is merely a chemical reaction in your brain. When we are in a frightening situation, a signal is sent to the thalamus, located at the center of the brain, and then travels to the amygdala, at the base of the brain. The amygdala is responsible for our ‘fight-or-flight’ response. It automatically decides whether to take on the danger head first or whether it is a better, wiser decision to run away for dear life. When our brain is faced with this choice, dozens of powerful hormones are released in the body, which causes all the symptoms described at the start of this post.

On top of this, our bodies can very quickly reverse this fear response. Say if your sibling did hide in the wardrobe and jumped out on you when you were least expecting it. You’re scared at first, sure, but after a minute or two, perhaps in even less time if this is a common occurrence in your house, fear slowly goes away and turns into slapping that sibling on the arm, telling them to stop acting like a prat or else you’ll tell Mum that it was them who broke the China plate set with the pretty stripes on. More scientifically speaking, however, when you realise you are not in a life-threatening situation, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) counteracts your fight-or-flight response, lowering your heart rate and stopping the release of adrenaline in your bloodstream.

When it comes down to the science, fear seems like a pretty mundane concept. The reason why you become scared is just because of a few hormones. Crazy, right? But that’s oversimplifying it. Fear is a much greater beast than we think. In some cases, fear can prove to be traumatic, or even lethal. In a study conducted by Professor Joanne Cantor, when we are asked to describe the scariest film we’ve ever seen, we display similar symptoms to those displayed by PTSD patients. In a 1998 case study, 80 students and 19 teachers had to be admitted to hospital after a member of staff complained about a ‘gasoline-like’ smell in a classroom. However, there was no gas leak and no harmful compounds were found in their bodily systems. Instead, the reported symptoms were caused by fear itself, the fear of being poisoned by a toxic gas.

Fear is more than just a collection of hormones. It is a frightening phenomenon. It is a weakness waiting to be exploited.

But it is also a spice of life.

Without fear, who would we run away from?

Tweet us what you’re most afraid of at @paperfoxlitmag

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