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Mind Matters: Is fear good or bad?

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This month many thrill-seekers will go to haunted houses and seek out spooky, fear-filled experiences. At the same time, many people will opt to avoid scary things while wondering why anyone would choose to be afraid.

Fear is a complicated emotion that causes various responses and outcomes. Fear can provide an adrenaline rush, alert us to danger, or create obstacles.

Fear Provides Adrenaline Rush

For adrenaline seekers, fear is an essential part of the enjoyment. Under the right circumstances, fear can impact the brain in a positive way by causing a release of neurotransmitters that enhance mood and excitement.

For this to happen, it is important for the participant to realize that the scary experience does not pose a real danger. For example, a roller coaster or haunted house may seem scary, but the adrenaline seeker believes that they are truly safe.

The right mix of reality and fantasy combines to create a delightfully fearful and fun experience.

Fear Alerts Us to Danger

Fear alerts us to danger and protect us from harm. Often the emotion of fear is felt before the logical part of the brain has recognized a danger. Therefore, fear is an adaptive and essential emotion that aids in survival and good decision-making.

The brain stem is known as the fear center of the brain and is responsible for the fight or flight reaction created in dangerous situations. This part of the brain is quick to react and send important information in the form of emotions.

The prefrontal cortex is the thinking and rational part of the brain. This area is slower to respond and may not recognize a dangerous situation until it is too late. Fear is an important behavior modulator that allows us to quickly assess a situation and adjust our actions as needed.

Fear Creates Obstacles

Fear holds people back in many ways. Many psychologists have heard patients say things like “I wish I could do that, but I’m too afraid” or “I wish I could just be happy and enjoy things without being afraid.”

Excessive fear creates obstacles and makes life difficult in many ways. While the ideal dose of fear can be helpful, excessive fear can cause one or more of the following:

Avoidance of activities: The desire to avoid the unpleasant emotion of fear, plus the belief that the negative consequences outweigh the positive may lead to avoidance of activities.

Excessive fear may cause avoidance of social activities, career pursuits, or completion of even simple tasks.

Overthinking/frequent worry: It’s difficult to make decisions, focus, or get anything accomplished when worry is constantly present.

Worry robs people of enjoyment and reinforces a belief that it is important to be vigilant to potential problems.

Frequent worry is also a major cause of insomnia, which can further exacerbate anxiety.

Panic attacks: The fight-or-flight mechanism that alerts us to danger can often backfire. This happens when the fight or flight reaction occurs in the absence of true danger.

The fear center of the brain is unable to distinguish between true danger and the danger of social embarrassment. For example, there is no true danger in public speaking. However, public speaking causes many people to experience strong physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.

Common panic symptoms include racing heart, sweating, nausea and chest tightening. Panic symptoms often occur at the most inopportune times, such as while out in public, while completing important work, or while driving.

Poor performance: When anxiety is high, the brain has less capacity for rational and creative thinking. Anxiety consumes so much energy and takes up mental space that could otherwise be devoted to creative or intellectual pursuits.

Students have a hard time focusing on reading and test taking when anxiety is high. Athletes also experience impaired performance due to anxiety.

A combination of too much adrenaline and overthinking interferes with an athlete’s ability to carry out the physical motions that had previously been fluid and automatic.

Is fear good or bad? It depends. Fear is a powerful emotion that is essential to survival. Fear can also provide an adrenaline response and enhance an exciting experience.

Excessive fear creates various problems, including avoidance, worry, panic attacks and poor performance.

If fear is causing problems in your life, consider counseling. The goal is not to eliminate fear but to find the right balance so that fear can once again serve an adaptive purpose in your life. 

Dr. Julia Becker is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Waco. She provides counseling to adults and adolescents dealing with depression, anxiety, relationship concerns and life stress. She believes counseling is beneficial for anyone who desires to have a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.

Email her at dr_becker@psybecker.com or go online at www.psybecker.com.

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