Facing fear in the name of science

Fear. We may or may not realize it, but the dark emotion haunts us everyday: We fear the traffic lined up Pico Boulevard, making you late to an important exam; not affording rent this month, facing your significant other about transferring to a school across the country next fall, terrorism, an apocalypse, chem-trails, air-borne diseases, spiders, snakes, and sailing through the air in an airplane.

The list seems absolutely endless. It is often synonymous with weakness and a main contributor to the overall deterioration of wellness. We often forget, however, that fear has been deeply rooted within our genetic make-up for good reasons.

A traveling exhibit developed four years ago by the California Science Center, "Goosebumps! The Science of Fear," explores the many characteristics of fear, presenting visitors with the option to face their fears or learn to cope with them first.

Though that is a luxury only available to museum goers, more research has been done on fear than any other emotion, allowing us to better understand its complexity.

All fears fall into three categories: those that are innate, like loud noises and falling, those that are gained and learned through personal experience, and those that are remained fears, those that are not innate but easily learned.

Some of them (mostly our innate fears) are logical, yet when fears spiral into obsessions and manifest into phobias, they can take over a person's life. Phobias like genuphobia (the fear of knees) and aurophobia (the fear of gold) can seem silly to most, yet those affected with them face major obstacles in leading a normal, happy life.

The physiological response that any fear creates in the body begins in the brain. Specifically, the amygdala (an almond shaped part of the brain) starts the process by scanning for danger at all times and, depending on how serious the event, either sends information into a longer processing state (to the hippocampus, then the pre-frontal cortex, followed by the hypothalamus and lastly the brain stem) or triggers the body's "fight or flight" response.

Fear triggers messages to alert the body to increase blood pressure, secrete a layer of sweat, increase respiration rates, and dilate pupils, allowing for a quick getaway or a feisty confrontation.

Scary situations cause temporary symptoms, but also affect memories, sometimes unfortunately a more permanent occurrence.

"Because of a particular experience, your nervous system changes and you're forever a different person. That was, and is, an amazing thing to me," said Dr. Michael Fanselow, Ph.D, Professor of Behavior and Learning and the University of California, Los Angeles. The findings reflect human behavior after a traumatic experience has occurred, as illustrated by the exhibit.

According to Dr. Fanselow, if a person experiences a fearful occurrence, they are very likely to remember it. However, if the calamity involves extreme emotion, it may result in a forgotten one. Ones that are retained can lead to unsettling disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

There are dangers to long periods of stress as well as intense short ones, but it seems as though the media, entertainment, and other means of pop-culture fuel what can be meaningless fears into what sociologist's call "moral panics," instilling unnecessary anxiety in the public.

Being aware that unneeded panic is used to grab attention of the public is vital in avoiding undesired stress that could potentially lead to bad health.

Coping methods such as seeking professional treatment, practicing breathing techniques, and even sometimes medication can significantly reduce the risk of harmful effects of fear.

So while conquering our fears may not be easy, learning to cope with them can be much more manageable, allowing for the inevitable presence of fear to be tolerable and dealt with accordingly.