I used to be an arachnophobe. However, a phobia is an irrational fear as opposed to a rational fear. Since I was hunted and bitten by a particularly venomous (and downright mean) eight-legged devil, I now have a completely rational fear of spiders, and a nasty and painful wound.
Many believe the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped region deep in each hemisphere of the brain, is the home of our fear. This isn’t quite accurate. What happens in the amygdala is threat detection and response. The lateral amygdala, a trio of neurons, looks through stimuli coming in from the outside world for, among other things, threats. If it senses danger, then the neurons start firing, signaling the central amygdala to activate a defense response in the body. This whole process is an unconscious physiological response (perspiration, increased heart rate, shortness of breath) and behavioral reaction (freeze, fight or flight), not an emotion.
When the amygdala is activated it is not emotional. It is an unconscious response that is not vetted by the frontal lobe. This is what happens to me when I see a spider. Once, I was teaching a class when a spider audibly plopped onto the podium from the ceiling. The next thing I knew I was standing in the hall. I didn’t think about leaving the room. I didn’t plan to leave the room. I didn’t have a conversation with the other people in the room about stepping out into the hall. My amygdala took over and my body left. They didn’t ask the rest of my brain for its opinion or permission.
Fear is an emotion that can be generated by many different things. When you are attacked, the amygdala engages the threat response, then the cerebral cortex assembles the experience and labels it as an emotion, or at least categorizes it with other experiences that feel similar. This is when we feel fear. Interestingly, the pathway between the amygdala and the hypothalamus, the stria terminalis, can be activated without input from the amygdala. Then we experience anxiety and perceive it as fear without the reality of a sensed threat. Researchers believe this area is hyperactivated during generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety.
So, if you duck and run when you hear gunfire, that is fear. If whenever you are out in public you worry that someone might have a gun, that is anxiety.
It matters when we confuse real fear, which is healthy and protects us, with anxiety, which confuses and paralyzes us. When we allow ourselves to be duped into feeling that we are in danger, when in fact we are not, we act in ways that we would not otherwise.
When we allow anxiety to run unchecked we find ourselves believing other people who look and act differently are dangerous. When that little part of our brain is hyperactivated by stress, and societal pressure, we say and do things that should never be said or done. If you doubt this, just read the paper today.
The anxiety that leads to this kind of fear is mostly about uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who is mostly responsible for the research leading us to understand the “fear center” of the brain, says, “fear is about a danger that seems certain, anxiety is an experience of uncertainty.”
When faced with things we are unsure of, and specifically our own mortality, we turn to “terror management” which in theory makes the world safer by making it simpler. We vilify someone or something and become dogmatic and one dimensional in how we think and deal with it.
Then we vote. And we post on facebook. And we tune into to people who are afraid of the same things we are. (I checked, there are no talk show hosts calling for the banishment of all spiders…)
We fixate on things that are spectacular but unlikely, such as terrorist attacks, mass shootings and plane crashes, and we vilify people who look different, talk different or have different beliefs.
What we should be concerned about are the 123 suicides in the U.S. each day (in comparison with 47 murders), the 197 deaths from accidental drug overdoses, and the 102 people dying a day in automobile accidents (27 of whom aren’t wearing seat belts, not to mention the unspecified amount driving distracted). Add to these the 1,315 deaths each day due to smoking, the 890 related to obesity, and all the other preventable deaths from strokes, heart attacks and liver disease, and the message is clear: The biggest thing I have to fear is not a terrorist or a shooter or a deadly home invasion.
I am the biggest threat to my own safety.
The bible says we aren’t supposed to live in fear. The world isn’t out of control and spinning into oblivion, it is completely within the control of a loving God. This may be hard to believe at times, but I think it makes much more sense than most of the other things being passed around. That same God tells me I should love other people (He didn’t say anything about spiders…) The bible also says that love drives out fear.
Interesting. If I don’t love, I experience fear which leads to hate. If I do love, I experience peace which leads to more love.
That is an easy choice for me.
P.S. I am not EVER going to love spiders.