May 02, 2020

By Tristan Kealy

Fright is experienced through fear when something causes us to become scared, we experience a situation that is completely out of context to the environment we are currently experiencing. It can cause a sudden mass rush of panic and many incredible things take place chemically inside of our bodies that are primitive, survival responses that may save our lives!

So, what does actually happen to us when we experience Fright? Our breathing and heart rate can increase rapidly, the peripheral blood vessels can constrict which can cause our extremities to lose the capability to perform fine motor functions whilst central blood vessels around our organs dilate to pump oxygen and nutrients to them so they can keep functioning at a high level. Our muscles will be filled with blood priming them for action. The beginnings of Fight or Flight?

The fight or flight response begins in the amygdala which helps us process emotions such as fear. It sends messages to the hypothalamus which in turn activates the pituitary gland, this is where the nervous system and the endocrine system meet. The endocrine system deals with hormones. The pituitary gland releases hormones into the bloodstream and our sympathetic nervous system is engaged, this part of our nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response and triggers the adrenal gland to release epinephrine into the bloodstream.

The body also releases cortisol which brings about an increase in blood pressure, sugar and white blood cells. The cortisol also turns our fatty acids into energy so our muscles can use it should the need arise. Hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine also help prepare our body's muscles for action. They can also increase the activity of our heart and lungs whilst reducing activity in the stomach and intestines. This experience gives rise to that feeling we call “butterflies in the stomach”. It also can inhibit the production of tears and saliva, explaining the “dry mouth” we can experience with fright, our pupils can dilate producing tunnel vision reducing our ability to take in what’s happening peripherally.

An example of when our brain decides that everything is O.K. and we need to calm down, would be when we are watching a scary movie. We experience a fright, we inherently understand that it’s just a movie with actors, special effects etc. and we appropriately dial things down. On the flip side if we were approached by a stranger asking us for directions and suddenly, they are launching an attack at us. Then, maybe our brain kicks our bodies response to another gear.

People often talk about “freezing” when experiencing fright. Not to get too technical but a 2014 study found a bundle of fibers that connect one region of the cerebellum to the periaqueductal gray in our brains. This network receives a lot of information about what we are currently experiencing, including sensory and pain. It is the time that this information travels and is being assessed that can be responsible for us not moving, not making a decision. I also believe our general life experiences, what we have in the memory bank to draw on, can delay our decision-making process.

So, what can we do to help our chances of not freezing when we experience fright? We must prepare ourselves the same way we would for a job interview. We would never walk into an interview unprepared unless we had no interest in the outcome being a positive one. The same is for Self Defence. We need to talk about the best ways to react to situations and practice defending ourselves in a safe environment but an environment that is still trying to replicate the violence and emotions of a real attack, so that when and if the time comes, we have a game plan. Planting the seed now in our minds will hopefully help when we need it most. We must remember to be loud, have our hands up, fight back, run. Etc We want to be able to recall all of these things very quickly if we find ourselves in a violent encounter. By practising and talking about how we would deal with a violent situation, gives us a head start for when we need it.

The fear response is a primal, survival mechanism that has kept humans alive for thousands of years. Fortunately, we don’t have to experience it’s effects in today’s society as often as our ancestors would of but it is a human function that still exists in us and can still save our lives when it occurs.