What Fear Lets Loose


We think that fear is a negative emotion which should be avoided. In fact, fear can trigger many strengths we are not even aware of possessing. Actually, fear is an emotion that ensures our safety in the face of danger. A low level of fear can have positive effects. Discovering the hidden powers of fear may lead you to victory when at risk.

1-      Reaction

Centuries ago, the lives of our ancestors were constantly at risk – wild animals, natural disasters, etc. Therefore, they needed a fast reaction to danger. This system is still there today. When sensory information reaches the brain, it splits into two paths. One is the conscious level, which we can remember and monitor, the other is the subconscious, by way of the amygdala region, which will recognize danger signals. When a signal is recognized, the amygdala triggers a reaction before we are even aware that a danger exists. While conscious recognition of an external event takes about half a second, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux declares that the amygdala receives signals from the ears and the eyes in twelve thousandth of a second.

2-      Strength

Under danger, our fine motor skills (those we use for threading a needle or inserting the key in the lock) diminish, but our coarse motor skills (those we need for running, leaping, etc.) increase. Kinesiologist Vladimir Zatsiorsky says that under normal circumstances, we use 65% of our muscle strength in lifting heavy objects, with professional weightlifters using up to 80% of theirs. However, under the pressures of competition, professional weightlifters can lift about 12% more than they normally do. On the other hand, Zatsiorsky claims that there is a limit to this, and that people cannot go over this limit even under danger. For example, a mother that can lift 100 kgs under normal circumstances can lift 135 kgs if she feels her baby is in danger. But she cannot lift 300 kgs. The secret to this lies in the fact that the chemicals secreted by the brain in times of danger act as painkillers and stop us from feeling the pain we normally do when lifting extremely heavy objects. However, this is a short term effect. If you have lifted the car to help someone in an accident, you will start feeling the pain after a short while, and notice that you have broken 8 of your teeth through clenching your jaw so hard.

3-      Focusing

In the face of danger, the subconscious takes over, and focuses on what is really important. Psychologist Linda Hamilton, who works with people who have stage fright, teaches her patients to embrace the positive aspects of this embarrassing situation with this philosophy: “Anxiety is not such a bad thing, when you are on stage, you will focus on that moment, which is exactly where you want to focus.”  When you are not anxious, you are not 100% focused.



4-      Expansion of Time

The most frequently experienced and strangest effect of fear is the apparent slowing of time. For a motorcyclist jumping off a ramp, 2 seconds may feel like 20 seconds. According to the research results of neuroscientist David Eagleman, the brain does not sense time with short intervals, it builds extremely detailed memories of the event. Therefore, looking back, it feels as if much more has happened. In the face of danger, the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and remembering, is also stimulated. When the amygdala is activated, the brain stores dense memories for future reference. This is essential for staying alive, because we need to remember exactly what happened the first time, should we come face to face with a life-threatening situation once again.

5-      Fearlessness

Maybe the most ironic aspect of fear is that, when it is intensely experienced, most people don’t feel it anymore. What many people who have faced life-threatening situations re-live and repeat time after time is that at the actual moment all emotions disappear, and when the danger passes, their legs suddenly grow weak and start shaking. Eagleman points out that emotions are very valuable in assessing a subject, or when evaluating our thoughts on some matter, but become meaningless at the moment of a head-on crash.

The experience you undergo when faced with danger will enable you to get to know a part of your brain you would not be aware of under normal circumstances. In this way, you may also find out just how strong you really are.

                Jeff Wise, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger

                Shortened and translated from the December 2010 issue of “Psychology Today”