The expression of fear is a warning signal and is triggered in situations where there is a threat or danger (real or imagined). Fear is also part of the fight-or-flight response system that humans have developed as a survival mechanism. When you feel fear, your bodies respond by shutting down unnecessary systems and rushing blood to the larger muscles in your legs in preparation for defense or flight.
Fear should be distinguished from the related emotional state of anxiety, which typically occurs without any external threat. Additionally, fear is related to the specific behaviors of escape and avoidance, whereas anxiety is the result of threats which are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. Worth noting is that fear almost always relates to future events, such as worsening of a situation, or continuation of a situation that is unacceptable. Fear could also be an instant reaction to something presently happening.
Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as the fight-or-flight response. The stimulus could be a spider, a knife at your throat, an auditorium full of people waiting for you to speak or the sudden thud of your front door against the door frame.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
— Frank Herbert, Dune – Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear
“What we fear comes to pass more speedily than what we hope.”
—- Publilius Syrus – Moral Sayings (1st C B.C.)
“A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.”
—- Edgar Watson Howe – Country Town Sayings (1911)
Courage is not the lack of fear but the ability to face it.”
—- Lt. John B. Putnam Jr. (1921-1944)
Fear causes a variety of reactions depending on the intensity, timing, and coping options available. The reactions include:
- Freezing in place and feeling terror if you can’t do anything to avoid the immediate danger.
- Running or escaping from the immediate danger,
- Sharply focusing your attention and mobilizing you to act to reduce or eliminate the danger when you can take effective action to cope with the threat.
- Panic, including shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, and the inability to focus on anything but worrying about the feared future event,
- Fighting to destroy the object of our fear.
- Fear also often causes cold hands, deeper and more rapid breathing, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, dry mouth, and trembling or tightening of the muscles, especially in the arms and legs.
You estimate the risks and vulnerability of the threat almost instantly and then fight, freeze, focus, or flee based on this assessment.
The evolutionary mystery of why your face contorts when you are scared has been solved by a team of Canadian neuro-scientists.
“When our facial expression shifts to one of eye-bulging, nostril-flaring fear, our ability to sense attackers or other imminent danger improves dramatically, researchers found.
The findings lend support to an idea first laid out by Charles Darwin in one of his less well-known tomes, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Darwin noted that facial expressions of emotion were often remarkably similar across human cultures, and even the animal kingdom, implying they may have a common evolutionary benefit.
“Most people think expressions are social signals, that they are intended to communicate what someone’s feeling. We’re saying they probably evolved as a sensory function first, even if they do help convey our feelings to others,” said Adam Anderson, a cognitive neuro-scientist who led the study at the University of Toronto.
Writing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Anderson and his colleague Joshua Susskind reveal how the classic expression of fear increases our range of vision, speeds up eye movement and improves air flow through the nose. All of these reactions boost our ability to see or smell threats and prepare ourselves for the “fight or flight” response, where we either battle it out with our attacker or take to our heels.
In the study, Susskind developed computer models for the facial expressions of fear and disgust. He then trained volunteers to pull each face. A fearful expression required participants to widen their eyes, raise their eyebrows and flare their nostrils, while a disgusted face was the opposite: a lowered brow, closed eyes and scrunched-up nose.
Measurements from video footage revealed those pulling fearful faces were not only better at spotting objects either side of them, but scanned their eyes faster, suggesting they could see danger coming more quickly.
In another round of tests, volunteers pulling disgusted faces were found to have a reduced field of vision and slower air flow through the nose.
“Fear expressions open up the face and expose the sensory surfaces, whereas disgust does the opposite, it’s a protective wincing. Fear is about vigilance and disgust is rejection,” said Anderson.
The team confirmed their findings by asking volunteers to pull different expressions while inside a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The images reveal that fear expressions open up the nasal tubes, allowing air to be breathed in twice as fast as someone pulling a disgusted expression.
“What we’re doing is psychological archaeology. We’re unearthing the residues of the functions of these expressions. Facial expressions might be more important as social signals, but that doesn’t explain where they came from. This work explains why these expressions are common across cultures,” said Anderson.