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The developing field of emotion - fear

In life, people experience fear - fear is an emotion that alerts us to threats of danger or harm. The fight or flight response is an example of a biochemical reaction to fear - it is an automatic physiological reaction to something that is perceived as stressful or frightening. These physiological changes help us confront the threat or run away - so it is essential to our survival. However, exaggerated reactions to a stimulus can be extremely damaging, for example: phobias and anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders usually involve having an increased heart rate, hyperventilation, feeling extremely restless and many more. If left untreated, it could lead to serious long term consequences such as cardiovascular disorders. Taking into account that most of our readers are teenagers, I have some bad news for you…

Studies have shown that teenagers are more likely to experience heightened fear (anxiety disorders) than any other age group - at least 10% of youths have experienced this. This occurs due to a mixture of different reasons - developmental changes in the frontolimbic circuitry, as well as varying environmental changes. Adolescents tend to face increased challenges, as this is a period of time where they have to learn to be independent and rapidly adapt to a new social world.

An increased prevalence of anxiety disorders in teenagers showcase the importance of studying changing brain circuitry to understand the complexities of these disorders. However, this field of emotion research is still rather underdeveloped as studies done with fMRIs demonstrated that there is no specific brain structure for processing fear. Additionally, there is still no consensus on how to operationalise the concept of “fear”. This leads to debates about emotion (fear) that raise numerous questions - Are emotions discrete or dimensional? Is the experience of fear in humans merely a social construct? At this stage, we cannot make proper assumptions about fear based on observations done on animals because we cannot even determine if animals experience fear. We communicate fear through language which makes the conclusions drawn unscientific, and neurobiological hypotheses cannot be tested. Therefore to combat this, additional funding is needed to go into this area of research. Secondly, it may be worth combining fundamental ideas of neurobiological theories of consciousness and research on fear - brain activation in response to verbal instructions could be applied. Since humans can induce their own fear just by thinking of specific stimuli, this infers that fear is more than just an automatic reaction of the body, it can be a conscious experience. Through research, perhaps one day we can take control of certain components of fear, and it will feel less daunting as we are aware of them.

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