How does fear work?
Fear is the alarm system that has contributed to our survival against predators since the beginning of time. Fear begins with an adverse learning experience that creates an emotional memory image (EMI), this is stored in our subconscious mind. Whenever an external stimulus similar to the information within the EMI appears, the threat response is activated.
How do Emotional Memory Images drive fear?
EMI’s trigger the fight or flight action of the autonomic nervous system, this subconsciously regulates many body processes and is divided into three parts – sympathetic nervous system, parasympathetic and enteric (1)
From here on, this learned fear response is driven subconsciously by any real or imagined threat that the mind perceives.
The subconscious effects of fear on the body
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates fight or flight and the brain rapidly decides the best action to take, in order to survive the immediate situation.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped bundle of neurons within the limbic system, acts through the hypothalamus which activates the pituitary gland and the endocrine systems.
Does fear start in the brain?
Fear is driven by our perception of the world around us, real or imagined. The brain is constantly updating the flow of information from inside and outside of our body, to maintain our life. From this perspective, fear begins with an adverse experience and it is the EMI of the experience, creating an informational block that prompts fear to be activated in the brain.
Signs of fear/the stress response
When the fight or flight response is activated the adrenal gland produces adrenaline and cortisol which triggers a chain of physical reactions. A perceived threat can be anything that is similar to the information stored within the EMI and need not be connected to actual physical dangers.
The two fear hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, keeping you ready for action and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Once the fear is over the hormones and the HPA-axis should return to normal but for many people who suffer with poor mental health this is not the case.
Types of fear
There are only two natural fears, we share these with the rest of the animal kingdom. They are loud noises and falling backwards, every other fear is learnt.
Hans Selye (the father of stress research) points to our inability to adapt and respond in the moment as being the cause of disease. This failure to adapt can eventually lead to chronic fear and fear of the unknown, which opens the floodgates to a myriad of conditions such as social anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders, as the brain continues to experience fear.
Post traumatic stress disorder or a barrier to learning?
The EMI, created after a traumatic experience, can be seen as a barrier to learning which prevents the person from moving forwards with their life until the body’s fear response is upgraded. Neuroscience points to an area in the brain called the limbic system, as being highly engaged with the process of chronic fear.
The limbic system has a role in all types of subconscious and conscious communication. It acts as a control centre for our emotions primarily and also contributes to higher order functions such as motivation, learning and memory.
Unlearning fear and relabelling emotions
A treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can affect long term memories and psychological responses makes sense and must therefore target the limbic system. Traditional talking therapies however, target the prefrontal cortex, which disengages when we feel fear. Therefore, more research into treatment that directly influences emotions and perceived threat is called for.
Relabelling an emotional response can impact how we experience fear; transforming scary movies of a haunted house into a learning response, can remove the imagined danger .
Most people have fear and anxiety of dangerous situations, this is healthy but being afraid of everyday life is an example of poor mental health. This can impact physical health in the longer term via the prolonged release of stress hormones.
Mental health and the fear response
The fear response is driven by the subconscious system, the actual trigger for your emotional response is outside of your conscious awareness. Poor mental health, therefore requires the brain to perceive something as threatening, in order to be experiencing fear, real or imagined.
The old saying goes “The problem is never the problem”. You may not have any conscious awareness of the cause of your current problem. Many people spend years in traditional therapy searching for this cause. The EMI sits outside of your awareness, it may well be that clearing the EMI is the only treatment that’s needed to free you from your troubles.
“…when it comes to health, our minds determine far more than our subjective experience of the physical world around us.”
J, Marchant (2)
Psychological symptoms of fear
When the brain has a sense that there is something dangerous about to happen or that your life is at stake, a psychophysiological reaction takes place. Increased heart rate, blood pressure rise, breathing accelerates in line with feeling afraid or having anxiety about what might happen.
PTSD refers to recurring fear created by prior trauma such an accident, war, or another dangerous /adverse event. The brain continues to experience the threat of the original event via the EMI, which over time has a degenerative health impact on the body and mind.
This psychophysiological view of fear is useful when it comes to figuring out ‘chronic’ health conditions because the survival mechanism used by the brain does not necessarily make sense for our health.
Psychophysiological dis-ease examples
For example, if you are working at a company or in a relationship where you do not get your needs met, feel undervalued or invisible, then you might develop IBS as your gastrointestinal system kicks back at the situation. You may become depressed, hoping that your partner finds you unattractive and leaves you for someone else. Neither set of symptoms are conducive to good health but they do support your existence. IBS makes you so sick, that you have to leave work and find a new career. Depression forces the current relationship to end, eventually opening the door to a better relationship as your mood lifts.
The subconscious mind delivers the results that you are afraid to say out loud and keeps you safe in the process, if you are still alive then it’s working and will continuously repeat the process until you break the hypnotic spell, otherwise known as life.
Is Anxiety fear gone wrong?
Natural fear aims to deal with serious physical danger but the immediate harm we face today is more psychological than physical. Our neuroendocrine system has evolved over thousands of years to become the finally tuned fear finding and fun loving device that it is, it does not go wrong.
Becoming socially outcast from Twitter or Facebook or going against MSM narratives create fears about our survival. This digitally created anxiety can impact greatly on our physical and mental health. The HPA-axis is in near constant dysregulation, which suppresses the immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to viruses, accelerated ageing, stress, anxiety and even premature death.
When the digital world becomes the danger, you just get a feeling, your pupils dilate and maybe your heart rate increases slightly? Even reading that last sentence can make you aware of the physical response to fear, that’s anxiety.
Do you really fear the unknown?
A fear of the unknown is being presented as the cause of many anxiety disorders (3), but you can’t fear what you don’t know, unless there is some prior negative experience connected to it.
Two-year-old children are often called ‘terrible two’s’ this is because they lack life experiences and therefore they have no fear, they haven’t learnt it, yet. They do not fear the unknown, they are excited and curious to discover it, to learn.
“Curiosity will always free you from your fear of the unknown”
Social anxiety disorder describes a state of poor mental health in which a person has anxiety at the thought of social interactions. This has developed within the modern world, where certain behavioural and clinical psychologists are suggesting it should be seen as an evolutionary trait (4). Historically, isolation from our tribe meant certain death. One must wonder what is subconsciously guiding the masses to believe this?
Loud noises and falling backwards are the only true fears, everything else has manifested as an EMI inside your minds eye.
If you want to learn more about how to clear fear then why not sign up to our newsletter. Or download the mindreset app to break the informational flow between your mind and your brain.
1.Waxenbaum JA, Reddy V, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Autonomic Nervous System. [Updated 2020 Aug 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539845/
2. Marchant, J (2016). Cure A Journey into the science of Mind over Body. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.
3. R. Nicholas Carleton,
Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all?
Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Volume 41,2016, Pages 5-21, ISSN 0887-6185,
Abstract: The current review and synthesis was designed to provocatively develop and evaluate the proposition that “fear of the unknown may be a, or possibly the fundamental fear” (Carleton, 2016) underlying anxiety and therein neuroticism. Identifying fundamental transdiagnostic elements is a priority for clinical theory and practice. Historical criteria for identifying fundamental components of anxiety are described and revised criteria are offered. The revised criteria are based on logical rhetorical arguments using a constituent reductionist postpositivist approach supported by the available empirical data. The revised criteria are then used to assess several fears posited as fundamental, including fear of the unknown. The review and synthesis concludes with brief recommendations for future theoretical discourse as well as clinical and non-clinical research.
Keywords: Fear of the unknown; Intolerance of uncertainty; Anxiety; Neuroticism; Fundamental fears
4. Tara A. Karasewich, Valerie A. Kuhlmeier,
Trait social anxiety as a conditional adaptation: A developmental and evolutionary framework,
Developmental Review,Volume 55,2020,100886,ISSN 0273-2297,
Abstract: Individuals with trait social anxiety are disposed to be wary of others. Although feeling social anxiety is unpleasant, evolutionary psychologists consider it to be an adaptation. In current models, social anxiety is described as functioning to have helped our prehistoric ancestors avoid social threat by warning individuals when their interactions with other group members were likely to be negative and motivating them to act in ways to prevent conflict or limit its damage. Thus, trait social anxiety is thought to have evolved in our species because it allowed our ancestors to preserve their relationships and maintain their positions in social hierarchies. While we agree with this conclusion drawn by existing evolutionary models, we believe that there is an important element missing in these explanations: the role that individual development has played in the evolution of trait social anxiety. We propose a new model, which argues for trait social anxiety to be considered a conditional adaptation; that is, the trait should develop as a response to cues in the early childhood environment in order to prepare individuals to face social threat in adulthood. Our evolutionary model can provide new insights into how trait social anxiety has persisted in our species and how it functions in the modern world.
Keywords: Trait social anxiety; Social anxiety disorder; Developmental systems theory; Evolutionary psychology; Conditional adaptation