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Fear: Physical, Mental Effects


Fear is universal. It is experienced by everyone but not always in the same way. The context of the situation and the individual’s own proclivities play a large part in determining the extent of fear.

Fear is an intensely interesting phenomenon. Though experienced by all, it defies a simple description. It seems foolish to try. Instead, three scenarios are substituted as analogies. In the first, a child is alone in a darkened bedroom. In the second, a mother crouches in the corner of a room on the 20th floor of a burning building. With her young child by her side, she cowers hopelessly as the futility of escape dawns on her. In the last, a middle aged man stands alone in a bank lobby, several women cloistered behind him, the last barrier to a knife wielding psychopath making threats.

Each scenario evinces from the individuals involved a visceral reaction of sweat, adrenaline, nervousness and heightened awareness, colloquially known as fear. In its simplest form, fear is intended to drive the individual out of harm’s way. Much as pain induces a behaviorally positive result in regards to inanimate dangers, fear causes the individual to avoid threatening situations caused by animate creatures.

Fear, however, is not as simple as pain. Pain occurs for much the same reason every time, that is, from immediate physical damage to the organism. Fear, instead, manifests itself in a variety of ways. In the first scenario, the child only imagines the danger. The fear experienced by the child, though imaginary, is real enough to the child that the same visceral reactions take place as in the two latter scenarios.  In other words, the child experiences “real” fear.  Repeated exposure to this type of situation eventually resolves itself and the child is no longer fearful of the dark or the bogeyman or whatever. Similar situations resolve themselves throughout the life of any normal human being.

In the second scenario, one finds a woman confronted with the loss of her own life and that of her child. The fire encroaches and the smoke chokes. She watches as the fire approaches to within 10 feet and then turns to her right. An open window with access to the outside beckons. Unfortunately, 200 feet of open air deprive her of escape.  She has no doubt that imminent death is upon her and her child. Devoid of options, she must make a most unpalatable decision; slow death by asphyxiation, excruciating death by fire or a blunt and painful death by defenestration. Couple this decision with the significant fact that her child accompanies her and one begins to understand the true nature of fear.

In this situation, the woman is confronted with the basest of fears; fear for her own life and fear for the life of her child. In addition, fear of the unknown and fear of making the wrong choice challenge this woman‘s mind. She is ultimately fearful that she will not choose wisely and inflict undue pain upon her and her child. The utter hopelessness of the situation is horrifying but ultimately it is decidable. One can only do what one can do. In the end, any decision is acceptable because it must be. The individual will eventually prefer the lesser evil, that is, the lesser fear, and act accordingly.

The third scenario offers the most interesting intellectual dilemma as there are actual choices to be made. While the situation of knife wielding maniac may seem, on its face, to be cut and dried, there are several determining factors as to its seriousness. How big is the knife? How physically intimidating is the psychopath? How serious does he seem about doing actual bodily harm to the women?

The unfortunate man in our scenario, albeit a possible hero, has many options to weigh. In addition, he must weigh them quickly. After all, there is a knife wielding psychopath in front of him. His own fight or flight reaction has probably already kicked in and his body impels him to head for the door. But that group of unprotected women is prompting his protective reflex. What to do, what to do?

In this situation, the effects of one’s upbringing are brought into play. Societal pressures determine the outcome. Unless a male is taught to “man up,” he is incapable of dealing with this situation in an honorable manner and he will run. Regardless of the overwhelming fear, a man has a moral obligation to stand between the lunatic and those women, even if it means his life. A decent, respectable society produces real men who are trained by their fathers to act accordingly. Perhaps, the point is belabored, but there is no substitute for real men. Cowardice is not a virtue in any society. 

The physical manifestations of fear are multitudinous. Some people shake, some hide under the covers and still others react with aggression. It is the myriad ways in which people react to fear that make it such an interesting topic. It is not impossible to differentiate between the various levels of fear. All types of  fear produce the same physiological effects but not the same mental ones. The context of each situation determines the individual’s ultimate fate. 

In short, fear is intensely personal and, at its most base, is universal. In many instances, it is really a social construct. You are not naturally afraid but are taught what to fear. One does not actually fear something until a name is placed on it by society. The most obvious example is death. If society embraced death, few would fear it. Instead, modern Western civilization celebrates life. One is taught that death is to be feared and so it is. Death is inevitable but one must rage, rage against the dying of the light. In the end, death is part of life. So, what is there to fear?

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