FROM spiders to heights to ghouls and goblins, science deconstructed fear as a mixture of chemicals designed to ensure our survival.

However, fear maybe just a tip of a psychological iceberg. It stems from a need to help the human body respond to dangerous situations.

Rosalito De Guzman, M.D., a professor from the College of Science, explained that aside from being a natural occurrence, fear also helps a person detect threats.

Referred to as the “fight or flight reaction,” fear is provoked by threats that urge a person to decide whether or not they should “fight” the fearful situation or “flee” from it.

“When [people are] afraid, the tendency is to withdraw from the stimulus,” De Guzman said. “Thus, the danger is reduced and risks are minimized.”

The stimulus, or the situation, can produce responses depending on who perceives it. For example, the sight of food can invoke hunger, and a bed can invoke sleepiness.

Fear, on the other hand, may be invoked upon the thought of a lady in black with red eyes, because it is not a normal occurrence and thus can be considered a threat.

The rush

When fear is invoked, the body undergoes temporary but sudden changes. Also known as “adrenaline rush,” the sudden changes are characterized by quickened heartbeat, accelerated breathing and heightened alertness due to the release of hormones like adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine.

The rush gives us the necessary surge of power and energy to fight or flee from the situation.

These types of hormones, also called as neurotransmitters, are released depending on circumstances, which could explain why people get chills when listening to a spooky story or a headless creature, but still nudge their friends to finish their story.

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Endorphins, for example, mostly respond to stress and pain, while dopamine regulates pleasure. Adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is produced during situations of high stress and is part of the body’s acute stress response system or the “fight or flight response.”

These neurotransmitters are akin to drugs like Morphine and Codeine in their ability to suppress pain or invoke pleasure.

Melissa Stoppler, M.D., added in an article that while these neurotransmitters are similar to drugs because of their effects, they do not lead to addiction or dependence. When these neurotransmitters combine together, she said they can contribute to a “fulfilling” scary experience.

In an article, Robi Ludwig, M.D., explained that as soon as fear disappears, the adrenaline rush is replaced by a “sense of powerfulness and euphoria,” or a sense of satisfaction. This is why an encounter with a headless priest in the Lovers’ Lane on one night could be a good tale to tell the next morning, sleepless night aside.

However, De Guzman added that not everyone perceives stimuli as fear the same way. According to him, because fear is inborn and inherent, it could be acquired and learned.

“What may be fearful to you may not be fearful to me,” he said. “[Judging something as] threatening is also influenced by past experiences.”

Due to fear’s “personal” nature, other people enjoy being afraid more than others. Apparently, the “thrill” of fear could be addicting.

“This (the feeling of satisfaction after fear disappears) is especially the case when it comes to simulated fear,” Gladeana McMahon explained in an article.

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Simulated fear are mechanisms that cause fear without the presence of an actual threat. Examples are “screamers” or the sudden appearance of unsettling objects, eerie music and disturbing graphics.

McMahon added that simulated fear is also the reason why people seek high-intensity activities such as dangerous sports or riding roller coasters.

De Guzman explained that this “enjoyment” will also depend on a person’s particular perception of the activity in question.

“Others may find it (the roller coaster) dangerous, others may just focus on enjoying the ride,” he said. “It depends on what you choose, and how you react to the situation.”

Ludwig added in another article that some people tend to scare themselves just to gauge their limits.

“There is a great sense of satisfaction when we can prove to ourselves [that] we can handle more anxiety than we ever imagined we could,” he said. “It is common for people to want to push the envelope just to see how much fear they could handle.”

Fear and health

In spite of being enjoyable, fear in excessive amounts may be unhealthy.

McMahon explained in an article that extreme fear in situations of real danger can last for long periods of time. These experiences could even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, and even lead to severe depression.

She added that this is why children get traumatized with monsters, like with clowns and mascots.

De Guzman explained that since fear is invoked by a stimulus, then the fear is a “reaction” to a “condition,” which is the situation in question. “Unlearning” this condition and removing the fear entirely could be done through psychotherapy or behavorial therapy.

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