Museum of Science and Industry


Fear!

By Mark
October 25, 2012

Earlier in National Chemistry Week, we mentioned this year's Nobel winners for chemistry and their work on the body's receptors for fear and other signals. Just in time for Halloween, here's more on how your system handles scares …

If you’re like me (and most other living creatures), you don’t like being scared. Since it is a survival mechanism, fear is designed to be unpleasant. It activates our emotions and puts our bodies on high alert. Ever wonder what is really happening inside your body when you feel afraid? Me too!

The feeling of fear usually begins with a stimulus, something that we perceive through our senses. Imagine a jump-rope-sized centipede bursting out of your breakfast cereal: that is a fear-inducing stimulus. When you see, hear, or (shudder) touch this creepy crawler, all sorts of signals zip through different parts of your brain. Your brain tries to keep you safe by throwing your body into a state of readiness known as "fight or flight." This response prepares your body to fight for its survival, or escape the scary centipede.

During fight-or-flight, chemicals are released inside the body. Norepinephrine (pronounced: nor-ep-i-NEFF-rin) speeds up your heartbeat and raises your blood pressure, which increases the flow of oxygen-carrying blood to your muscles. Epinephrine (ep-i-NEFF-rin) is another chemical that stimulates the heart, but it also helps free up stored energy that your body can use as fuel. Cortisol is a hormone that helps prevent inflammation and saves energy for you to use by pausing your immune system’s activities.

While fight-or-flight might seem like it gives you an awesome physical advantage, your body can’t stay on high alert forever. People stuck in scary situations for long periods of time are likely to get fatigued or even sick. So a little fear can help protect us, but too much exposure to it can wear us out.

If fear is so unpleasant and tiring, why do we need to feel fear at all? Well, unfortunately, without fear we would accidentally put ourselves in danger without realizing it. Fear is like a cranky crossing guard that hollers at us to get out of the way of danger when we’re not paying attention. We may not like fear, but it is looking out for our safety… so I guess it’s okay in small doses.

Image: Wikipedia via author Palica

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