Fear causes pleasure and makes you stronger: The physiology behind it

Emeh Joy
By Emeh Joy

Basic medical scientist, health research writer with experience writing for health brands like Dentistry Brands LLC and KompleteCare.

You must have heard that fear makes you stronger but how is that so? How is it that the same feeling that makes you tremble and vulnerable, make you strong? Many people don’t know but there is physiology that connects fear and strength.

Fear makes you stronger: A scared man running and jumping a ditch

We are in November. Typically, when December starts drawing near in some countries, people begin nursing fear. They nurse the fear of travelling because the road will be busy and road accidents will be prevalent, fear of armed robbers and fear of kidnappers that want to 'cash out' during the Christmas season.

According to Chapman University of Survey of American Fears, people's biggest fears are comprised of daily headlines- things happening in the society such as crime, bad governance, environmental problems, death, illness, personal anxieties and disasters.3

Fear is an emotion just like happiness and sadness. It is usually triggered when a person perceives a threat. It is a basic survival mechanism that helps keep us safe.

When you are in danger, your body responds with a fight or flight response. At that point, hormones are released that will help you enter the fight or flight mode. 

People often think that fear makes them weak and incapacitated. But, in reality, fear is the way you perceive the risk of a situation. Fear is how you respond to risk.

Have you wondered why some people, e.g., horror movie lovers, soldiers at the war front, night guards seem to thrive in fear while others avoid it?

The body's physiological response to fear

Photo by Aaron Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Fear is both physical and psychological. It causes behavioural, endocrine, autonomic and cognitive responses.1

Fear emanates from the mind. However, it affects the body eliciting strong physical reactions.

In the face of fear, the amygdala (a small organ in the middle of the brain associated with memory, fear and stress response) starts work immediately.

The amygdala signals the nervous system. The nervous system, in turn, sets up the body’s fear response system. It causes the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline

These hormones cause the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, and breathing increases even as blood flows more from the heart to the limbs, thus making it easy for you to run for your life (flight response). In a case whereby adrenaline is released suddenly, it is known as an adrenaline rush

The release of adrenaline into the bloodstream can also cause:

  • Contraction of muscle cells below the skin surface, causing sweating 
  • Break down of glycogen into glucose to provide the muscles and brain with energy
  • Contraction of blood vessels to cause the flow of blood to muscles.

Adrenaline is the primary hormone that prepares your body for fight or flight. It empowers you and offers you strength in the face of fear.

The adrenaline rush is what enables you to jump a high fence when robbers attack your house, jump from a story building during a fire outbreak or jump out of the way of an oncoming speeding car before you’ve even had a chance to think it through.

Fear can cause pleasure

If you are a fan of horror movies or love roller-coaster rides (which some people find scary), you will confess that you feel some pleasure after watching or being caught up in such suspenseful, stressful and somewhat fearful moments.

Someone else that isn’t a fan of such activities may not find it fun and won’t understand what is thrilling about sitting down to watch movies about ghosts, haunted houses and dark magics.

But, for you, the thrill doesn’t even necessarily end when the scary movie or activity ends. Your body remains excited even after the scary movie/moment is over. This may be linked to excitation transfer which is based on the theory that horrifying events in the media typically causes arousal among viewers.4

“During a staged fear experience, your brain will produce more of a chemical dopamine, which elicits pleasure”, said Dr Zachary Sikora, a Psychologist at Northwestern Medicine. 

At this point, you might want to ask, “why do some people enjoy being scared while others don’t?”

According to a 2017 study, every person’s brain experiences fear (and anxiety) differently, and people are vulnerable to it depending on how their brain works.2

For people who enjoy 'being scared', fear creates a sort of distraction for them which can cause them to experience a positive feeling. 

When a scary event happens, people become highly alert and focused on the present without being preoccupied with other life worries like work, trouble at school etc. Also, sometimes, people feel threatened by things that are not real (e.g., horror movies).

The ability to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t real leaves behind a thrilling experience and a feeling of being in control. 

That feeling of being in control is vital to how people experience and respond to fear. When an individual overcomes that initial adrenaline (fight or flight) rush, the person is often left with a feeling of satisfaction, confidence and reassurance of safety. 

On the other hand, if a person perceives a scary event as too real, the person may become extremely afraid that the fear overcomes the sense of control over the situation.

Fear is not the same as phobia

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

The word ‘phobia’ is one of the most misused and most-abused words today. Someone that dislikes cats and is just scared of them can just come up and say, “I have a phobia for cats”. 

Fear is different from a phobia. Just like generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobia is one of the disorders of fear. 

If you are slightly uneasy when you are inside a ship with a large body of water surrounding you and the waves hitting the vessel, you are most likely just afraid of sailing.

But, if you find yourself traumatised, terrorised, trembling, and unable to function properly at the mere thought of that, then you may have a phobia for the sea.

Fear is a common way the body reacts to incidents or things, but it becomes a phobia when it traumatises you and affects your ability to function well and maintain a consistent quality of life.

How fear can motivate you

Fear does not always cause a negative outcome. Sometimes, fear leads to positive results such as motivation. If you can push past fear, you can count that as a goal.

Emotions (e.g., fear) and motivation are interconnected. Both words have the same underlying Latin root, which means “to move”. They both involve arousal and affect behaviour.5

“Fear can motivate, often more than a positive reward”, says Dr Michael Mantell, Director of transformational coaching at Premier Fitness Camp.

For instance, the fear of getting overweight motivates some people to work out regularly. The fear of failing exams may motivate people to read. The fear of falling sick and dying young may motivate people to live a healthy lifestyle.

These are only a few examples of how fear can motivate you to take action. 

Fear also helps you develop courage and resilience. To be courageous, you need to face fear. When you overcome that fear, you build courage and self-confidence.

References

  1. Adolphs R. (2013). The biology of fear. Current Biology: CB, 23(2), R79–R93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.055 
  2. Berkowitz, R. L., Coplan, J. D., Reddy, D. P., & Gorman, J. M. (2007). The human dimension: how the prefrontal cortex modulates the subcortical fear response. Reviews in the neurosciences, 18(3-4), 191–207. https://doi.org/10.1515/revneuro.2007.18.3-4.191 
  3. Chapman University. (2017, October 17). America’s Top Fears 2017: Chapman University Survey of American Fears. https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/ 
  4. Moyer-Gusa, E., Giles, H. and Linz, D. (2008). Communication Studies, Overview. Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict (Second Edition), Academic Press. ISBN: 9780123739858. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012373985-8.00032-5 
  5. Walinger, Jennifer and Stangor Charles. (n.d.). Introduction to Psychology - 1st Canadian Edition (Chapter 11. Emotions and Motivations). https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/chapter-10-emotions-and-motivations/