The only thing you have to fear is fear itself … in which case you are suffering from phobophobia, the fear of fear. Okay, phobophobia is probably not what Franklin D. Roosevelt was referring to in his famous speech but how odd is a phobia of fear? And what you might find even more peculiar is the science behind fear. Neurologists and psychologists are studying fear to determine how phobias and anxiety disorders form, how to treat them, and even how to predict them. The Marian Koshland Science Museum recently held a talk on the science of fear with psychology experts Daniel Pine (a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health) and Mark Wiederhold (President of the Virtual Reality Medical Center), and we were on hand to gather eight fascinating (and sometimes surprising) facts about fear.
1. Fears are not caused by one, big, scary event.
If you have been attributing your fear of heights to that terrible fall you experienced when you were three, you might be surprised to find out you are probably wrong. Fears develop through a complex mix of genetics and environment. Though Pine does point out two factors found to put children at risk for developing anxiety. “One major factor is underlying temperament, the tendency of a child, early in life, to react emotionally to various types of stimuli, particularly novel and social stimuli. We know that a relatively small group of children are born with a temperament called ‘behavior inhibition.’ These children tend to react with fear when they confront novelty, particularly social novelty. A second factor is having a parent with either a mood or an anxiety disorder. This association between parental emotional problems and childhood anxiety likely involves both genetic and environmental factors.”
2. Certain fears are universal across cultures.
“There is a very strong relationship between age and the types of fears that people report in many different cultures. This tells us that there is something fundamental about the development, as it relates to fear,” explained Pine. Early in childhood, fear of strangers and fear of separation are common. The next stage is fears of specific objects (animals, insects) and scenarios (thunderstorms, the dark). In adolescence, fears center on social experiences, such as humiliation in front of peers. Adults have more abstract fears like failure.
3. Individuals with anxiety disorders experience normal fear responses to scary situations.
You might expect people with anxiety disorders, phobias, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to have unreasonably high fear responses to all scenarios, scary or not. But people with these disorders exhibit normal fear responses to scary situations. People with anxiety are not “hyper” afraid of all situations, rather they experience higher amounts of fear and anxiety to specific situations.
4. Anxiety in childhood is normal.
If you are anxious in childhood, you most likely will outgrow it. Most children are anxious but outgrow this anxiety by the time they reach adolescence. But sometimes the anxiety persists into adulthood. Can we tell the difference between anxious kids who will outgrow anxiety and anxious kids who will become anxious adults? At the moment, no, but neuroscientists are working on it.
5. Fearless individuals do not have normal fear responses to scary situations.
Unlike people with anxiety disorders, who have normal fear responses to scary situations, fearless people do not. Fearless people are fearless, even during scary situations. (A fearless person would be calm during a plane crash, for instance.) Why are they fearless? The answer is, we do not know. Neuroscientists are working to find the answer but, in the meantime, all we have are clues. “So far, there is some evidence that people who are fearless have patterns of neural response that one might expect. That is, fearless people tend to show a tendency to not engage the very same brain regions where highly fearful people show a tendency to overly engage the region,” explained Pine.
6. Fears can become extinct.
But in this case, extinction is not the same as in the dinosaur context. Fear extinction is the process of reducing fear by creating non-fearful memory associations. For example, a mouse taught to associate a light with a loud noise. If the mouse experiences the light without the loud noise, the mouse will form new (and more pleasant) memories associated with the light. The alternate set of pleasant memories will complete with (but not erase) the original fearful memories.
7. Stress hormones enhance fear extinction.
A 2010 study examined how the stress hormone cortisol affected patients undergoing exposure therapy for a fear of heights (also known as acrophobia). The double-blind, placebo-controlled study administered cortisol or a placebo to patients an hour before exposure therapy. Subjects that received cortisol reported a greater reduction in fear of heights. Those subjects also showed significantly greater reduction in anxiety during treatment. It might seem strange for a stress hormone to ease fear but cortisol has been shown to enhance memory consolidation of new information in humans and animals, which helps in fear extinction during exposure therapy.
8. Virtual reality is for more than gaming.
At the Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC) patients with phobias and anxiety are exposed to their fears through a unique form of exposure therapy: virtual reality. Phobias, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders are treated by 3-D computer stimulations (experienced through a head-mount with small TV monitors and stereo headphone) that progressively expose the patient to the stimulus of the anxiety. A person afraid of crowds, for example, would experience a simulation of walking down a street, with varying levels of people depending on the stage of treatment. Virtual reality exposure therapy is particularly helpful for patients who, for whatever reason, cannot tolerate or receive traditional exposure, such as soldiers with PTSD who are no longer deployed.
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