The Science Behind Fear, Anxiety and Stress and How to Counteract Them

Looking back on 2020, how are you feeling? Hope, wellness, fulfillment or fear, frustration and anxiety?

The other day I heard a story about a merchant and the Plague. Meeting the Plague, the merchant asked: “So, where are you going? The Plague said:   to Bagdad. And how many you will kill this time? The Plague said: Oh, not many, only around 5,000 people. Then, they separated. Few months later, the merchant met again the Plague. Very upset, he asked the Plague: Why did you lie to me? You said you will kill only 5,000, but I heard 60,000 people died. Then, the Plague said: I didn’t lie, I took the life of only 5,000, the rest they died of fear.”

This story makes me wonder: How powerful is fear? How does it kill? Does it impact the immune system? And what can be done about it?

In the light of the latest events happening in 2020, I’m sure you are struggling with strong emotions, like fear, anxiety and lots of frustration. The good news is that you don’t have to feel this way. The first step is knowledge. What does science say about fear? Is there a solution? What if the circumstances remained difficult? Should our peace or hope only come from a positive change of circumstances?

Let’s first look to the science behind fear

It doesn’t really matter if the danger is coming from a bear that’s running after you or a terrifying lion that goes out of your email. It could be an imaginative fear or a real one. Could be a scary movie or a scary event that happened years ago that you vividly remember, or just a half an hour of listening to the recent news. In all these cases, fear is perceived by our brain as real and it reacts accordingly.

The hypothalamus reacts and releases tons of chemicals. The sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) releases stress hormones like cortisol which at its turn inhibits non-essential body activities: like slowing the digestive system and with this, the immune system (almost 80% of the immune system is in the gut) and the reproductive system. The body is then prepared for attack and uses the hormone epinephrine to activate: heart rate and the blood pressure increase; big muscles get tight prepared for the fight and all your senses are on high – alert. The brain is preoccupied with fear, so any other small tasks are out of brain focus.

So, the amygdala (those 2 little almond shape brain structures, behind the eyes) will scan the threat and signal the body to respond, the hippocampus turns on the sympathetic system while the hypothalamus gives the signal to the adrenal glands so as to release stress- hormones.

The stress passes and the sympathetic system turns off while the parasympathetic one (rest and digest) is activated. The Autonomic Nervous System balances and the homeostasis is re-establishing. But, what if the stress continues? The “brake” can fail so the brain gets into a continuous fight and flight state.

We are in an African jungle and see a lion, not so far, free, that can attack any moment. Our amygdala will immediately get activated by throwing our body in a reaction of strong fear. If the lion is in a cage, tight up with a chain and us behind a fence, our prefrontal cortex will reassure the limbic system (the emotional brain), that everything is ok. The context is everything.

Senses also play a big role. That’s why mass media news that involves video, audio and pictures can have a powerful effect on our brains. Pubmed has an interesting article on Fear Spreading Across Senses: Visual Emotional Events Alter Cortical Responses to Touch, Audition, and Vision”. This state: “that emotion tunes the excitability of sensory systems across multiple modalities simultaneously, allowing the individual to adaptively process incoming inputs in a potentially threatening environment.” I remember the panic and the horror I felt, as a young adult while I was watching at TV the events that took place in September 2001. Sometimes, the comments were interrupted, and it seemed like the reporters themselves were in a freeze state.  Months later, in fear of flying, people were driving more, which actually led to a huge increase in car accidents.

What affects fear?

Studies showed that fear and learning do not mix well together. Focus and learning demands a lot of the brain resources. Fear, too. As fear is perceived as a much bigger threat, will leave no resources for other cognitive activities.

Fear creates also distraction. Whatever projects you have, can wait. Now, it’s not the time to evolve, but to protect. Life itself is at stake. Who cares about the rest?

Weakens the immune system and damages your cardiovascular system, creating digestive issues (like ulcers and IBS irritable bowel syndrome) and also a premature death.

The perception of fear

Now, events that you can control are clearly less frightening than those that you can’t control. The choice also impacts fear. A risk imposed is perceived more dangerous than a one choice. Uncertainty and contradictory information, make us want to protect more.

Even more interesting is how fear is perceived differently when you think that someone you love or yourself can be a victim. A risk of 1 in 1,000,000 can still seem threatening if you think you could be the one.

The risk presented in numbers is also perceived differently than one in percentage. So, one million deaths seem frightening, even if they represent only 0.000125% of the population.

Fear, anxiety, stress and the immune system

Studies done on medical students showed a drastic reduced immune system after only 3 days of exams. The immunity-boosting gamma interferon was almost interrupted and also the production of T-cells that fight infections. Conclusion? Even a stress of a few days’ damages substantially the capacity of our immune system to fight against viruses, infections or other toxins. If we add a lack of social support, isolation and loneliness, the immune system will suffer even more.

Solution

Biofeedback is a powerful tool for stress management and to reduce fear. Heart-Math institute has a lot of research done on the connection between heart and brain.

Using a clinical HRV software (the emwave), an ear sensor or a finger sensor connected to a USB module, you can train your brain and learn to change your heart rhythm pattern to create physiological coherence.

According to Heart-Math institute, coherence is a state of synchronization between mind, heart and emotions. It uses a breathing pacer and a few colorful funny interactive games to train your heart and your emotions. According to them, learning how to self-regulate emotions, attitudes and behaviours is the most important skill that someone should possess.

The emotional centers in the brain send more and stronger neural connections to the cognitive centers than the vice-versa. So, emotions as fear, anger and others can easily overpower cognitive functions as attention, perception and memory. Also, the cognitive thoughts by themselves have little influence on the emotions. In addition, the heart’s magnetic field radiates 2 meters outside the body, and it carries information that affects other people, including pets and children. It links us together and with Earth’s magnetic fields, in an amazing way.

So, emotion self-regulation techniques as the Quick Coherence ( by Heart Math) are the most efficient ways to change mental patterns and processes. Fear is a very strong negative emotion with great impact on the cognitive centers of the brain. By practicing Quick coherence technique, and replacing fear with positive emotions like gratitude and appreciation, you will not regret.

In conclusion, the most fearful thing is the fear itself. Best way to prevent disease: take care of cortisol levels. Check your HRV (heart rate variability) and use it to reduce your stress and anxiety. Restoring the balance of the autonomic system becomes a must, especially in our days. Use biofeedback and practice Quick coherence technique. Replace fear with gratitude and increase your personal coherence so as to improve not only your health but also the global field environment.