Halloween is fast approaching, accompanied by the usual overabundance of ‘scary’ fancy dress parties, horror movies and pumpkin-flavored everything. We may regard this holiday as just another excuse to get smashed out of our minds while wearing costumes and a bit more fake blood than usual, but on a more global level the dominant theme of Halloween is fear. But what is fear? Why do some individuals shriek like little girls at the sight of a spider while others don’t even flinch? And when do fears become phobias?
In technical terms, fear is a strong negative emotional response to a perceived threat or danger, which triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response. The area of the brain that generates the biochemical reactions associated with fear is the amygdala. It releases stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol in response to stress stimuli, to prepare the body for increased muscle activity. We’re all too familiar with the resulting physical reactions, such as the increased heart rate, quickened breathing and dilated pupils; we’ve all been through exams after all. Everybody feels fear because it is an evolutionarily conserved survival mechanism that allowed our ancestors adapt to dangerous environments.
Specific fears, however, are the result of learning. You weren’t born with a fear of clowns, but after having witnessed their freakishly painted faces or watching Stephen King’s IT you’ve made damn sure to avoid all circus situations (just me?). In psychology, this learning process is known as fear conditioning. The Little Albert experiment (1920) by John B. Watson first demonstrated the process in humans. In the study, 9-month-old baby Albert was first exposed to a loud sound, the unconditional stimulus, which resulted in fear. He was then allowed to play with a rat, which he was not afraid of – it was a neutral stimulus. However, when the introduction of the rat was accompanied by the loud sound, little Albert showed fear. After repeated exposure to both stimuli at once, Albert reacted fearfully at the sight of the rat alone (a conditioned response); he had learned to associate the neutral (conditional) stimulus with the unconditional one and reacted accordingly. Disturbing as traumatizing a baby for scientific purposes might be, the study did shed light on how traumatic events could lead to the development of phobias.
However, traumatic experiences are not the main reason for why people develop certain fears. More often than not we hear about dangers through friends and social or mass media sites i.e. through indirect means. A 2007 study by Andreas Olsson and colleagues showed that fear can be learned by observing others in fear-inducing situations. In both direct and indirect (observational) fear learning, both the amygdala and hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in memory – are activated. An association between the neutral stimulus and aversive (unconditional) stimulus is formed in part by long-term potentiation (LTP). This means that there is an increase in the strength of signal transmission between two neurons that results from them firing at the same time.
Phobias in turn are defined as persistent, irrational and often disproportionate fears of an object or situation. Individuals go to great lengths to avoid their fear and often react with severe anxiety, distress or even panic when confronted with it. Depending on the severity of the phobia, it can interfere with the person’s social and occupational functioning. Some phobias, such as the fear of heights (acrophobia) or snakes (ophidiophobia), are more common than, say, the fear of the number 666 (Hexakosioihexekontahexeaphobia – try saying that 5 times fast) and more readily induced in a laboratory setting. According to the psychological concept of preparedness, we have been evolutionarily programmed to have a natural predisposition to fear situations or objects that pose real threats to our survival. Your crippling anatidaephobia – fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you – sadly doesn’t fall into this category.
University life is not without it’s stresses. Right now your fear of axe-wielding mass murderers may be distracting you from more pressing issues, such as an ever-increasing workload or future career plans. But when reality does come crashing back in with brutal force, remember that there are people there to help you. Talking about your anxieties with friends and family is a great way to calm your nerves; you may discover that your friends feel the same way or have good advice for dealing with these issues. In addition, the university offers great advice and support for careers guidance and planning here. If for whatever reason you feel like you cannot share your fears with friends, the students at Warwick Nightline are there to listen.