All animals are in danger everyday and yet must carry on with their lives and
careers as if they are going to survive. Animals need calm, functional states
and emergency programs that focus their attention and mobilize their resources
to deal with danger. There is an archetypal list of feared objects: snakes,
insects, heights, night, and small, dark, damp spaces that may hide creepy,
crawly and slimy things. Humans are afraid of capture and imprisonment and
fear small, closed spaces that may lack oxygen.
Fear and anger are emergency programs. The basic idea is that as soon as a
danger signal is detected, all attention is focused on the signal source and
consciousness floods with an unpleasant feeling. The feeling is there to make
sure you do not try to override the emergency program. The fear program is
broadcast into the body via the sympathetic nervous system and the hormone
adrenalin, secreted by the adrenal gland. Energy is mobilized through the
release of glucose. The heart races and pumps more blood. Respiration
accelerates to increase the oxygen content of the blood and all muscle tissue is
put on alert.
Fear is preparation for fight or flight. The term “panic” describes
fear that is associated with confused or vacillating behavior. Panic is a
confused mixture of flight and flight. A movie audience panics when the theatre
catches fire. They push and shove, punch and kick as they attempt to flee the
building. When crowds panic, people die of suffocation and those who fall down,
are trampled under foot.
Misslin describes the neural mechanisms of fear as a hierarchical network
with the amygdala as point of convergence of threatening stimuli. The central
nucleus of the amygdala projects to the midbrain periaqueductal gray (PAG), the
hypothalamus and the brainstem that coordinate flight, freezing, avoidance
reactions, submissive postures, reduced pain sensitivity and autonomic arousal.
Fear is a strong aversive emotion and animals and humans quickly learn to
avoid situations that made them afraid.
One of the goals of an affluent society is to reduce danger so that average
citizen can feel confident that they are going to survive the day. Fear is the
opposite of security and a fearful person does not feel confident that he or she
is going to be safe. Fear, as a conditioning state, is also generalized to
Humans are conditioned to associate fear with a wide range of stimuli that by
themselves do not suggest danger. Conditioned fear may last a lifetime if the
fear-triggering event was intense or repeated. Phobias are recurrent fears
linked to avoidance behaviors that may result from conditioning or arise
spontaneously because the fear program is overly active.
Anxiety is a common but fuzzy term that should refer to low
intensity fear and to conditioned fear that tends to be recurrent, context
dependent and not linked to an obvious threat such as a hungry lion confronting
you on the sidewalk.
Anxiety also refers vaguely to many kinds of discomforts and dysphoria that
all humans experience. An elaborate ethos of urban anxiety has developed in
literature and in the curious and sometimes bizarre world of medical-psychiatric
descriptions of the human experience. Physicians diagnose anxiety after brief
conversations with patients and drug companies promote chemicals for the
treatment of “anxiety disorders” as if experiencing life’s discomforts is a
medical problem with a medical solution -- eating pills obtained from the