Handling Fear & the Chemical Response
Sensei John Wetherell
To be able to handle fear it useful to know how it works, the chemical changes it creates in the brain, when and why it occurs and the result of the chemical response.
We can also look at different times we may experience fear, both in a violent encounter or otherwise and recognise the symptoms of fear in different situations.
This can help us deal with fear, by understanding it, accepting it and coping with whatever situation you find yourself in (and dealing with irrational fear). Also it can give us an understanding of the effects of a violent encounter on feelings of fear (E.g. rape / assault victims) and how someone can become conditioned to fear by their environment or certain traumatic incidents.
Difference between Emotions & Feelings
Emotions = hard wired responses/innate
Feelings = Subjective & influenced by conscious thought
Scientists believe that we can study and understand ‘fear’ as it is an ‘emotion’ and is therefore a product of the unconscious mind. According to Joseph Ledoux, a neuroscientist at New York University, "emotions are hard-wired, biological functions of the nervous system that evolved to help animals survive in hostile environments and procreate." They are unlike ‘feelings’ which are "products of the conscious mind, labels (given) to unconscious emotions" and are therefore more difficult to understand. Some scientists believe that due to ‘fear’ being classified as an ‘emotion rather than the complex workings of consciousness’, it can be viewed as a nervous (unconscious) impulse which in turn produces specific motor activity in the brain which therefore manifests itself in a physical capacity.. By viewing These scientists believe that we should look at these emotions as nervous impulses that elicit motor activity, instead of them as complex workings of consciousness.
In simple terms this means that we can analyse, understand and predict the processes that take place in the brain and body following a ‘fear stimulus’.
Fear can be explained as a process, which is triggered by a stressful stimulus which in turn induces a chemical reaction in the brain, which cause a number of physical responses in the body; such as increased heart rate and breathing, energised muscles and other symptoms (described later). The effects of the chemical reaction caused by the stimulus are often called the ‘fight-flight’ response. The stimulus could be anything, in the case of self-defence, a knife to the throat, an angry voice, a visual / verbal confrontation, a group of people, someone who arouses your suspicion, someone walking behind you and so on. In the case of general fear, the stimulus could be a spider, the thought of public speaking or a sudden loud noise etc…
It is believed that the fear response invokes two simultaneous processes in the brain. If we consider the processes as following specific paths then we can simplify them by calling one process the ‘low road’ and the other the ‘high road’. So while both are involved in the ‘fear response’, one takes longer than the other.
The ‘low road’, is believed to be linked with the survival mechanism and creates an automatic response to a stimulus. In simple terms a stimulus is received, for example, a loud unexpected noise in the middle of the night or maybe an aggressive person engaging with you, possibly in an aggressive verbal manner. The ‘fight-flight’ response is initiated almost automatically, even though the case in point may be a false alarm. In fact the ‘high-road’ brain path may come to the conclusion that there is no cause for concern after analysing the information but the ‘low-road’ process does not discriminate and so therefore produces a ‘just in case’ response. For example you may realise that the person shouting aggressively at you from the other side of the street is in fact an old friend doing it for fun, however initially the threat was very real and the process was put in motion, hence the symptoms of fear remaining or being present even after you have realised there is no threat.
The stimulus (eg the door banging in the night / the aggressor) provides data which is sent to the ‘thalamus’. Working with this sensory data the ‘thalamus’ has no information on whether this data has any signs of danger or not so therefore indiscriminately forwards this information onto the ‘amygdala’. The work of the ‘amygdala’ is to take protective action by relaying the message to the ‘hypothalamus’ to initiate the ‘fight-or-flight’ response – this process that the brain goes through automatically could be life-saving if the threat turns out to be real.
What some may call the ‘high road’ path for the brain interpreting and dealing with a fear stimulus assesses the situation whilst the ‘low road’ path has initiated the fear response ‘just in case’.
Again the brain receives the sensory stimulus, of the door knocking or the aggressor and this is sent to the ‘thalamus’. In the ‘low road’ path it is sent straight to the ‘amygdala’, but the ‘high road’ process sees this data sent to the ‘sensory cortex’ whereupon it is interpreted for meaning. The conclusion is that there is more than one possible meaning so it is then sent onto the next part of the brain where context can be established. This takes place in the ‘hippocampus’. In the examples of the door banging and the aggressor the hippocampus asks questions such as “whether the noise in an intruder or perhaps the wind” or “whether the aggressor has violent intentions or whether they recognise their face”. The ‘hippocampus’ also acts on other information being relayed through the ‘high road’ path which relate to the incident; for example the sound of the storm outside, indicating the door noise was the result of the wind and not an intruder, the faces of the people with the would-be aggressor, the body language of them and him. The ‘hippocampus’ then sends a message to the ‘amygdala’ to turn off the fear response or the ‘fight-or-flight’ response when it’s happy with all the data it has received that there is no danger.
Both paths take the same information from the stimulus and work simultaneously, however because the high road takes longer than the low road, in the case of a false alarm, we experience a momentary feeling of terror before we can calm down.
Both Paths - Simplified
Stimulus – Thalamus – Amygdala – Hypothalamus – (Fight-or-flight)
Stimulus – Thalamus – Sensory Cortex – Hippocampus – Amygdala – Hypothalamus…
Hypothalamus / Adrenalin / Fight or Flight
There are 2 systems that the hypothalamus activates which result in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. These are:
The Sympathetic nervous system & the adrenal-cortical system
The reactions in the body are caused by the sympathetic nervous system using nerve pathways; and the adrenal-cortical system using the bloodstream. The result of these two systems working in this manner is the fight-or-flight response.
In simple terms, when the message is sent by the hypothalamus to the sympathetic nervous system to start working, you become more alert; the body will speed up, tense up and prepare you for the possibility of having to act quickly. Part of the process involves messages being sent to glands and muscles, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) are also released into the bloodstream via commands to the adrenal medulla. These are otherwise known as ‘stress hormones’. They have numerous effects upon the body such as raising blood pressure and heart rate.Simultaneously, the adrenal-cortical system is activated by the hypothalamus releasing corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) into the pituitary gland.
In turn the pituitary gland releases the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream, whereupon it arrives at the adrenal cortex. In order to combat a potential (or what is perceived by the systems as very real) threat the ACTH will cause the release of about 30 different hormones.
Effects on the Body caused by Fight or Flight
The effects of the fight-or-flight response are noticeable and significant. There is in effect an overload or flooding of adrenalin and other hormones in the body. The fight-or-flight response initiates physical responses to help us survive dangerous situations:
- Raising of heart rate & blood pressure
- Dilation of pupils – this is so the eyes can take in as much light as possible, leading to an increased state of alertness
- Blood is sent to major muscles groups to prepare the body for action. This blood comes from the veins which means there is less blood in the skin for the body to keep warm. This explains the ‘cold’ feeling or ‘chill’ people feel when they are experiencing fear.
- Increase in level of blood-glucose
- Tensing up of muscles which is caused by adrenaline and glucose. This explains the resultant goosebumps
- Smooth muscle or muscles that are non-essential in relation to fight-or-flight relax. This helps the lungs to take in more oxygen, again for the preparation of running or fighting
- More energy is dedicated to emergency functions so nonessential systems like digestion and the immune system shut-down.
- The brain is focused on the big picture and we struggle to focus on small tasks. For example, a complex martial arts move involving a high level of dexterity may desert the most competent dojo practitioner. An example many people can relate to is the fumbling of keys in locks when we are experiencing stress or fear.
Fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism; those who feared the right things survived to pass on their genes to the next generation. Fear is an ‘ancient instinct’ (Charles Darwin), which is in-built into us, often resulting in the very obvious ‘face of fear’.
Despite the fact that we are no longer fighting for our lives on a daily basis, we are affected by certain stimuli, which create the fear effect instinctively. Also, in day to day life we may experience the anticipation of certain events happening. It is said that when anticipating a fearful event we undergo the same response as if it were really happening. This can lead to false alarms.
It is thought that our fear response has not only been developed by evolution through the necessity to survive but also by conditioning in our environment and own experiences. This can explain why some people have a conditioned fear response to dogs and some don’t. For example those that do may have been attacked by a dog in the past and from then on that person associates dogs with attacks instead of someone who associates dogs with a lovable family pet. The same thing could happen with a physical attack; say for example the attack takes place on a train; the victim may develop a fear response every time they see or go on a train in the future.
Fear conditioning can vary according to environment, for example, if you’ve grown up in a city as opposed to a farm, you are more likely to be conditioned to fear being mugged. Conversely, some may argue that such conditioning may actually make you less likely to fear such events as you have been exposed to it, and maybe being more aware of the danger signs than someone who has spent their life in the country. However the person from out of town, who did venture in, would probably experience a conditioned fear response when in the city; this may not be caused by personal experience but by media stories and anecdotal evidence.
Attackers & Training
So we know that the fear-response is partly innate and partly developed through conditioning. So we can use this information to help us understand what happens in an attack, how the attacker can use this to their advantage and also how we can train to prepare ourselves for such situations.
Unfortunately, the person who wishes to attack another is probably well aware of the fear response. Maybe not in a scientific or academic sense but is well aware of the in-built response that they can elicit from their actions. A quick example here is the use of intimidation; maybe the attacker has a lot of experience in instilling fear in their prey in order to psychologically defeat them before they’ve even started. They may know that the other person could be a threat physically on an even playing field but they know how to win the psychological battle. They are well aware of the signs of fear and use them to their advantage. They may be well aware of their own signs of fear and take such action to hide them. This is just one example of an attack, as someone may be just as likely to attack without (any apparent signals) physically and viciously. For such an attack, when we are switched off or blind-sided, there has been no chance for fear to build and we are instantly involved. If the assailant is effective the attacked is in a very weak position, as even if the first blows do not render them unconscious they are always trying to ‘catch-up’ and could easily be over-whelmed.
However going back to the scenarios in which there may be a build-up of fear; this is an area that can be trained for in a safe environment such as a training hall or dojo through pressure testing drills. Without going into the specifics of such drills they involve a student applying certain skill sets under ‘pressured’ conditions, otherwise not normally trained in a normal karate or martial arts class. Some of these drills involve verbal attacks, shouting and even swearing to try to replicate a real situation. Despite the fact that we consciously know that we are in a safe, training hall environment, the fact that we have someone shouting at us, possibly pushing, and generally acting aggressive works on our sub-conscious and even though the situation is ‘not real’ the same fear responses occur on an automatic level. This in turn accustoms us to what may happen in reality. The theory is that we trick our sub-conscious into believing that the situation is real.
As well as understanding the benefits of dojo training we also need to understand the limitations of such training too. Just like the military prepare for real combat by engaging in battle training with rubber bullets to mimic the real thing, you can never fully prepare for the ‘real thing’ without the ‘real bullets’.
One of the problems with scenario training is that you cannot possibly account for every possible scenario that may occur – attacks can be random and unpredictable. It is true that certain attack scenarios can follow certain rituals – however the student must be warned against sticking rigidly to the rules set out by such training or they will get stuck in one pattern of thinking. For example if you train a violent, escalating situation where someone is pushing and shoving and the attacked is conditioned to responding to a specific trigger – they may be waiting for this trigger in reality. The reality may be different – the attacker may strike before this trigger or maybe not at all. Therefore it is best to see these drills as a way that people can get a general feel for the aggression of a real life situation and not necessarily become fixated in exactly how it plays out.
This is why continual, repetitive karate / martial arts training is required to internalise the training drills and enable a practitioner to call upon their body to perform under stress without thinking. Also without worrying about whether they should be remembering the ‘attacked in a pub drill’ or the ‘attacked in a dark street drill’ etc… For starters we will not be able to process such information when under the effects of adrenalin. We need to appreciate what we can achieve through our training drills; directness, unthinking actions, simplicity and so on. The beauty of training is that it is in a safe environment and we can analyse different scenarios, go slow, assess and train is such a way that benefits all involved and above all is safe and enjoyable.