What happens when we become scared?

18 November 2012




I'm Riin from Estonia and I love listening to your podcasts all the time when walking (between my universities buildings) at my university town Tartu.

Anyways - I was wondering, what happens to human body, when something/somebody scares it? I tend to be frightened easily and because of that I also wanted to know how badly it affects me.

Keep up the good work!!


Ginny - When something scares us, a signal is sent to our amygdala which is a part of the brain that controls emotion. The first signal that's sent actually bypasses the conscious part of your brain and that explains why if you glance at a piece of rope out of the corner of your eye, you get scared before you consciously see it and realise that it's not actually a snake. It is just a piece of rope, but that fear comes before that realisation. And the second response, because it's slower, travels through the cortex and that gives you the conscious control and the realisation of, "Oh, it's just a piece of rope. It's not going to hurt me."

Now, if it had been a snake you had seen, the feeling of fear would've also been accompanied by what's known as the 'fight or flight' response, and that prepares you to respond to danger.

Your sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and this releases adrenaline into the bloodstream. Your pupils dilate, allowing more light into your eyes, your heart rate and your breathing increase, sweat is produced and digestion stops. Cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone, is also released and this increases glucose levels in your blood to provide extra energy, and all of these things that will prepare you to either run away from the source of the fear or to attack it, to fight back. Now, in modern life, those two options aren't always possible. If the source of your fear is a big presentation at work or something like that then running away or fighting it aren't really possible options.

Chris - You wouldn't get the promotion.

Ginny - No, exactly. So, in this case, these mechanisms which evolve to protect us may actually be detrimental to our health. Prolonged stress responses - so if you stay at this heightened level of arousal, of fight or flight for a long time, it can actually weaken your immune system and increase your blood pressure, so it can make you more susceptible for colds and flus, and also increase your risk of heart attack. So if you do have a very stressful job or life, or you get scared a lot, it's probably a good idea to try and take a break every now and again, let your body calm down a bit and recover.

Chris - What happens if you got to go on the radio and do a radio interview?

Ginny - Well, short levels of this stress is actually quite beneficial. It can actually make you perform better. A lot of performers find that if they don't get a bit of nerves before they go on stage, their performance suffers. There's this inverted U-shaped curve. So, there's a beneficial level and then if it goes above that, it starts being detrimental again. So a short burst, that can be good, but what you don't want is to stay at a very high level of adrenaline release for a very long period of time.


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