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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Things that Go Bump in the Night



The weather is changing, and the winds are howling. Every shadow from the moonlight looks like a monster and your brain goes into overdrive! But why? What is it about a spooky environment that sends shivers up our spine?


Our brain is all about protecting us and helping us survive. This is the DNA we received from our prehistoric ancestors. If they didn’t sense a threat or feel fear, they would not survive very long. Through our evolution, the people who understood fear survived to pass on their genes. “In passing along their genes, the trait of fear and the response to it were selected as beneficial to the race.” (Julia Layton, How Stuff Works)


The Autonomic Fear Response

Our autonomic fear response protects us as much today as it did our prehistoric ancestors. We may not be running from an animal predator but our everyday fear of crime or a random terror attack more than fit the criteria for fear stimuli. Anticipating a fearful stimulus can provoke the same response as experiencing it. For example, the first time you flew in an airplane – were you white-knuckled because you were afraid you were going to crash? When we anticipate fear, we draw on either experience or something we saw on TV or read in the paper. Chances are overwhelming that you will not be in an airplane crash, but your brain is primed for survival and sets off the fear response.


Americans’ Top Fears

Because the fear response is an evolutionary experience, we can gauge how Americans approached their fears. Here are the


Top Ten Fears of 2021:

1. Loved ones dying

2. Loved ones becoming seriously ill

3. Mass shootings

4. Not having enough money for retirement

5. Terrorism

6. Government corruption

7. Becoming terminally ill

8. Hate crimes

9. High medical bills

10. Widespread civil unrest


The everyday threats that we all experience have pushed the Top Ten Fears of 2022 in a more precarious direction. The challenges are bigger and more threatening. Here is what the research found.


The Top Ten Fears of 2022

1. Corrupt government officials

2. People I love becoming seriously ill

3. Russia using nuclear weapons

4. People I love dying

5. The U.S. becoming involved in another world war

6. Pollution of drinking water

7. Not having enough money for the future

8. Economical/financial collapse

9. Pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes

10. Biological warfare


You can see the difference between the two years quite clearly. In 2021 we were coming off the ravages of the pandemic. More fear responses involved fear of getting sick, becoming terminally ill, high medical bills, loved ones dying, and loved ones becoming seriously ill. Half of the fears centered around illness and dying.


By 2022 corrupt government officials took the top spot. Now the focus has become more universal with fears of war, nuclear weapons, corrupt government officials, pollution, and economic collapse. This time half of the fears were seeded in the big international picture.


Our fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing, and energized muscles – also known as the fight or flight response. We have more than 100 billion nerve cells that make up the complex communications that are the starting point of what we sense, think, and do. These communications function on two different levels of the brain: some lead to conscious thought and others produce autonomic responses. The fear response is almost entirely automatic – we do not consciously trigger the response and, it runs its course before we are even aware of the reaction. So our environment is heavily responsible for our fear response.


The process of creating fear starts in the brain and is entirely unconscious. There are two paths involved in the fear response: the low road (quick and messy) and the high road (takes more time and delivers a more precise interpretation of the events). We get the benefit of both paths as they are occurring simultaneously.


The Low Road: take no chances;

· Shoots first and asks questions later (wind or burglar rattling door?)

· Process:

o Door knocking – stimulus

o As soon as you hear sound and sense motion -> sensory data is sent to the thalamus

o At this point thalamus doesn’t know if the signals are signs of danger – or not

o Since it might be dangerous -> forward information to the amygdala

o Amygdala receives neural impulses and takes action to protect you

o Amygdala -> hypothalamus – initiate fight-or-flight response


The High Road: considering all the options:

· Process:

o Eyes and ears sense sound and motion -> information sent to the thalamus

o Thalamus -> sensory cortex – interpreted for meaning

o Sensory cortex – more than one interpretation of data -> goes to the hippocampus

o Hippocampus consolidates information; picks up additional information

o Makes decisions based on all information

The hippocampus sends the message to the amygdala that there is no danger

The amygdala sends information to the hypothalamus to shut off the fight-or-flight response


The sensory data regarding the door – stimulus – follows both paths at the same time. The high road takes longer than the low road. That is why you have a moment or two of terror before you calm down. No matter which path we are discussing – all roads lead to the hypothalamus. This is the portion of the brain that controls the ancient survival reaction of the fight-or-flight response.


In this time of so much upheaval, our brain is on red alert. We must understand that. Immediate steps to break that fight-or-flight cycle are necessary to settle down and make good decisions. Although the news cycle is 24/7 it isn’t necessary to our survival to watch every minute of every news program. We need to give our brains a break. Physical exercise, meditation, challenging our brain, eating right, getting good sleep, and being with other people all interrupt the stress response. This is our survival mechanism.


References:

Gabriele, R. (September 29, 2023). America’s top 10 fears: the 2021 American fear index. Retrieved from https://www.safehome.org/home-safety/american-fear-study



The Voice of Wilkinson. (October 14, 2022). The top 10 fears in America 2022. Retrieved from https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkenson/2022/10/14/the-tpo-10-fears-in-america-2022/


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