Understanding fear, our responses to it, and how to manage and control it

Jan 12, 2024 | 0 comments

By Garnett Stewart

I use Google to define fear. When you’re afraid of something dangerous, painful, or disgusting, you feel fear. We fear what might happen.

I heard many people express concern in Centro Cuenca today. I saw no risk anywhere.

When I drove up Remigio Crespo this afternoon, I saw a swarm of police and motorbikes, suggesting trouble. No, the officer said they were hunting for illegals.

My taxis driver said he was scared. He hesitated to articulate his fear when I asked. A fear response may be happening to many of us this week.

Dr. Amy Marshall clarified fear in excellent study.

Experiences shape how we handle fear, a fundamental emotion. The first time we’re scared, such as a youngster, we must learn how to react. Have you seen a baby cry while its parents are scared? We learn fear responses.

We are wired to see fear as protective. I’ve never had a lion pursue me, but I’m afraid I’d get eaten since I move slowly. Is that fear reasonable? My guess is no. We have no lions running lose in Cuenca (although you’ll find them at the Amaru Bioparque). If I were on safari in Africa, this anxiety may be valid.

The brain’s amygdala channels emotions. Potential threat stimulates the amygdala, causing fear.

We can be in danger, believe we are in danger, experience “scary” stimuli (e.g., a horror movie), or purposefully activate the amygdala to anticipate danger.

The amygdala processes emotions. Thus, the language and impulse-controlling frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex are “turned on”. Have you ever felt too terrified to speak? Did you become irrational? You recognize your breathing is fast but can’t stop? Feel weak and dizzy? Lose consciousness?

These terror responses are intense. Their purpose is to protect and, in some cases, save your life. Energy is diverted to the amygdala, slowing all non-essential functions. When scared, we make fast decisions that often backfire.

According to the experts, there are four fear responses.

Our fight response is characterized by anger, which is a veiled form of fear. As a verbal or physical threat. You can conquer danger with rage. We can overcome danger with this great tool if real. However, irrational rage might make us sense danger and act inappropriately.

If our brain doesn’t think it can fight danger, we may decide to escape. This approach focuses on fleeing the danger as rapidly as possible. Flight can prove effective if the risk is avoidable.

Another panic response is to freeze or stay quiet until the danger passes. Socially worried people may acquire selective mutism, an inability to communicate in stressful situations. Freeze can be a very effective tool. Our training is to freeze when, for example, a bear approaches. We want to avoid provocation. We become mute because our vocal chords freeze. Freeze reactions prevent many people from talking for prolonged periods. Evolutionary theories suggest the brain freezes to avoid predators. Brain signals: Freeze till threat over!

“Fawning” is a fearful cognitive response to impress the thing that causes it. Abused women often try to prevent attack by keeping the offender happy. They act obedient and submissive.

While in peril, we have little time to think about our options, thus these processes happen automatically. That moment is when our brain works best. We often make bad choices when the amygdala is aroused.

When we detect this reaction, we may try a different choice. Research shows people can change their terror responses. Frequent, acute fear responses without a real threat may suggest clinical anxiety. If you avoid non-threatening situations, fight often, or put others’ needs before your own, you may be experiencing fear responses and need help.

Our brain uses fear to protect us, therefore never feeling fear is unhealthy. Early people who do not feel fear may have tried to pet the saber tooth tiger instead of hiding, which likely will not end well. We want our brains to correctly identify threats and make the best option to protect us.

Anxiety may cause frequent or excessive fear responses in the absence of peril. Fortunately, medication, treatment, and restricted trigger exposure help manage anxiety. In my experience, fear all the time is not a happy life.

Our brain activates fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reactions to defend us from danger. Understanding the mechanisms behind these responses may help us manage our emotions better.

I had a male patient on the Texas-Mexico border who was afraid of tetanus injections. I worked in the ER that day. He hyperventilated. He wept. He was almost absurdly dramatic. I rubbed his upper arm. After injecting him, he breathed and said, “Just give it to me,” to which I replied, “I did, about two minutes ago.” He exclaimed, “I’ve never felt anything.” My patient was having an irrational fear reaction. His countenance showed relief. I declined his personal nurse request because, “Sir, I am not a regular ER nurse. I am working in the ER owing to staffing issues. Houston gave me the task of improving this hospitals patient care. I am the director of cardiac care. But I’m glad you appreciated it.”

Fear can literally make us sick. Many people are triggered by this national emergency. I hear and see. Our PTSD-afflicted US veterans are provoked.

Shall we make an agreement?  I will lead the charge down Las Americas or the Cajas to safety if the threat is serious! Despite my bad knees, I can move fast. If the fear is imagined, let us take a deep breath and focus on the peace we are experiencing.

We’re safe in Cuenca. Police and military are protecting us. Just be more aware of your surroundings and reduce your stress. Avoid talking about difficulties to find tranquility.  Discuss serenity and safety using Newton’s Law of Attraction. Please attract positive energy to yourself and others.

Be well please.

Permanent resident Garnett Stewart lives in Cuenca, Ecuador. She is a retired Adult Medicine Nurse Practitioner who specialized in Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery and wrote numerous publications. Her nursing degrees are both Bachelors and Masters. Biochemistry and biophysics were her undergraduate majors, and a Nursing Bachelors was required before the Masters. Contact Ecuador.advice@gmail.com please and not privately. I am keeping statistics of responses and data.


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