Why am I scared? The science behind fear.

Biologically speaking, fear is an incredibly important feeling to have as it is responsible for helping us to get out of dangerous or scary situations. This could be something like running away from a crocodile to simply giving a speech to huge group of people. Whatever it is, it’s terrifying for us isn’t it? However, that raises an important question though, why do we get scared?  What causes us to become anxious when we’re about to do something that’s out of our comfort zone, even though we feel like we have no reason to be?

The answer is a set, or rather two sets of nuclei that are shaped like almonds located deep within our brain, specifically in the temporal lobe. It is known as the Amygdala (or amygdalae for plural) which is part of our brain’s limbic system and is mainly responsible for our emotions and how we react to the things around us. Basically, it’s in charge of our behaviour. It doesn’t just feel and react to fear but to also other emotions including positive ones. For example, if you reluctantly started a new hobby and you find out that you actually enjoy it, you’ll create a positive memory of that hobby and so next time you do it, you won’t be that hesitant. Another example is when you accidentally touch something hot, you’ll feel pain and instinctively move your hand away. Fear, anger, pain, happiness and other emotions can be felt and acted on because of the amygdala.

A diagram showing where the amygdala is located in the brain.
Source: Neuroscientifically Challenged

In spite of the fact fear has sometimes stopped us from pursuing things we want to do, it is actually an incredibly useful emotion that has also saved us many times, especially in the past. Our ancestors often came into contact with numerous predators they needed to escape from. If they didn’t have the ability to be scared, then they wouldn’t have seen the animal as a threat and wouldn’t run away, which ultimately would lead to them getting eaten. However, because they were afraid, their fight-or-flight instincts kicked in which allowed them to run away from the threat (or fight them depending on how dangerous it was). Fear was essential for the survival of our ancestors.

We can’t control how our body reacts to situations that are scary for us. We all react in different ways in different situations and that’s okay. Our bodies are just doing what it thinks is the best way to get out of the danger or situation that makes us uncomfortable. Next time, you find yourself scared of something, just know that it’s your body’s way of protecting you and keeping you safe.

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