Neurohacking Everyday Fear
Science of Fear
The Fear Response
Fear is really all about that feeling we get when we expect or anticipate something bad. “Bad” is a spectrum that spans from mild discomfort to severe trauma and death. The human body is super good at recognizing threats, because managing and minimizing threats is what has kept our species alive this long.
This laser focus on threats, is also why it’s easy for us to get fixated with the negative and ignore the positive. Like how we get a compliment and forget about it minutes later but can obsess all day about the rude thing Janice said this morning, imagining all the good comebacks we should have said but didn’t – you can thank our super awesome fear focus for that.
To begin talking about the biology of fear, let’s make sure we have quick and dirty understanding of the human nervous system. Our nervous system allows us to interact with our internal and external environment by sending & receiving information. Our ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are all part of our nervous system.
Our nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system in the center of the body and the peripheral nervous system, branching out from the center nervous system. The central nervous system, or CNS, consists of the brain and spinal cord and makes all the decisions on what to do and how to react.
Our peripheral nervous system is primarily responsible for relaying information between the central nervous system and the other parts of the body, like glands and skeletal muscle. Think of the central nervous system as your computer and the peripheral nervous system like your internet cables.
The peripheral nervous system can be further subdivided into the autonomic and somatic nervous systems.
The somatic nervous system is responsible for voluntary actions like that of skeletal muscle. Me smiling on queue is a voluntary action that I am making happen by deciding to engage the skeletal muscle in my face.
On the other hand, the autonomic nervous system is all about the vital processes we have no willful control over, like digestion. Once we decide to swallow our food, our autonomic nervous system takes over with the digestion ballet of contracting and relaxing smooth muscle and activating glands to help break down our food.
When we think about the autonomic nervous system, think auto-matic. The autonomic nervous system can then be further broken up into two parts, the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch.
Think of these two branches as two individual bus drivers, where you are the bus. If the sympathetic branch is driving your bus, then you are in a stressful, alert state. Something has happened where your body is primed for action, sometimes this is referred to the fight or flight response. The sympathetic branch takes over when something has triggered our fear or stress response.
Then, once everything calms down, the parasympathetic bus driver takes the wheel. The parasympathetic branch is all about, calm, Zen, rest and digest. When the parasympathetic bus driver is at your wheel, your body is all about daily maintenance, cellular regeneration, and homeostasis.
These two branches work in opposition of one another, which means only one can be at the wheel – just like you can only have one bus driver steering the bus.