When you feel scared, you feel alone, helpless. But the best bodyguard in the world is already inside you, working round the clock to protect you from all manner of harm. And all the sensory organs that protect your vital organs take their orders from one source: the amygdala.
The amygdala doesn’t mess around. Its primary function is to keep constant look out from the brain’s threat centre to see if anyone’s up to no good, much like a nosey neighbour with the emergency services on speed dial. That’s what makes your heart beat fast, breaks you out in a sweat, makes it difficult for you to breathe and grips you with panic. Not exactly the life and soul of the party.
Now, you might think getting rid of the amygdala - this thing that keeps telling you to be fearful and jumpy - will make you stronger. On the contrary, it is what keeps you alive. If our primitive ancestors saw a sabre-tooth cat and didn’t get the signal to run for cover, we’d have become extinct a long time ago. Similarly, it was the amygdala that assessed the threat level from a gazelle to be low, thus assuring our ancestors they could take it on in a fight and eat it to survive. Fight or flight in a nutshell.
The amygdala, however, only watches and warns. It’s the other parts of your brain that can make things problematic, even though they’re only trying to help. The part that stores memories of previous bad experiences, for instance, does so with the intention of helping you learn from it, but is also the reason why being scared of a spider as a two-year-old translates in the adult brain for so many as something to feel terror at. Good news is, the mind can apply logic to deal with it when that happens.
It’s not all in your head, of course. The instant fear grips you, your heart starts pumping faster to get more oxygen, with the respiratory system, lungs and circulatory system all doing their bit to get it to your muscles, in case you need to run. Your pupils also dilate, causing tunnel vision, the message sent being: focus!
Fear also makes the hairs on out arms stand straight, and most annoyingly, leaves us with clammy hands. If you look at a cat – puffing itself out to look bigger – you see how body hair can scare off a potential threat. Goose bumps are basically the result of your body tensing up and gearing it for action. As for sweating, much as it may seem like the hallmark of anxiety, it actually exists to keep your body cool during this time of increased heart rate and blood flow.
The other terrible thing it does is make us physically shake during heated confrontations. This happens because glucose is diverted from the blood to the muscles, which is what you’ll be using, whether you decide to wrestle or scarper. See it as your body revving up, but use your mind to keep it under control, and your composure to tune down the tremble in your voice.
All of these physical reactions seem like botheration until you realise they’re all part and parcel of the magic word – adrenaline. Everyone, from the successful businessperson and world-famous performer to the thrill seeker and physical challenge fanatic swears they’re driven by the buzz of it.
That’s the hormone that increases the heart rate and blood pressure, fills the lungs with oxygen and sends blood to the muscles, enlarges the pupils and gets your body set for fight or flight. Pretty much everything we’ve covered so far, only it sounds sexier when we call it adrenaline, doesn’t it? Who needs stress? Well, adrenaline does. That’s when we get the rush, so don’t be afraid to, well, be afraid.
The next time you feel scared, and your knees trembles and voice shakes, don’t see these as weaknesses but a sign that your body is doing its job. The more you face your fears, the more you’ll have control over the way your body reacts, your mind feeling calmer in the knowledge that you have the most-hardworking team in the world on your side...