All people experience some degree of worry, fear and anxiety. It is completely normal and serves an important function. Fear and anxiety are part of our biological survival system. They allow us to get out of life-threatening situations, typically by either fighting or fleeing. It is also called the body’s fight/flight reaction. When we find ourselves in dangerous situations, it is therefore evolutionarily important that we become afraid. Experiencing fear is what makes us act with caution, protect ourselves as best we can, and react quickly when we are in danger. As soon as we are out of danger, we typically stop being scared and start thinking and acting as we otherwise would.
It should also be added that our brain cannot tell the difference between whether we are experiencing ‘real’ danger or just believe that we are. This is why we may experience fear and anxiety in situations that are not, objectively speaking, dangerous. But it is enough that our brain believes that the danger is real, for our bodies to react.
What happens in the brain?
Our bodies are built to be able to respond to threats very quickly, to ensure our survival. Inside our brain is a part called ‘amygdala’. Part of amygdala’s job is to take care of our biological survival systems. The amygdala registers signals from the rest of our body very quickly, and makes our body go on high alert. It does this by sending signals to another part of the brain called ‘hypothalamus’, which releases adrenaline. The adrenaline is then released into our blood, where it can affect our autonomic nervous system. Our brain also secretes a hormone called cortisol, which has a similar effect to adrenaline, but acts more slowly and for a longer duration.
Our autonomic nervous system can be divided into two parts; the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is activated when we experience danger. Opposite is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is active when we feel safe and relaxed. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, it starts a lot of different processes in our body, with the purpose of getting us ready to spend a lot of energy on either fleeing or fighting. This is why we experience the physical anxiety symptoms such as heart palpitations and sweating.