Physical reactions to fear

Physical reactions to fear

Humans are emotional beings who respond both physically and psychologically to different factors in their environment. Fear can be described as an emotional and physiological response to immediate danger. Fear can sometimes manifest as anxiety concerning a non-specific threat or concern. Physiologically speaking, fear is a chain reaction that begins in the brain. This chain reaction is sparked by a stressful stimulus. It ends with the release of a chemical that causes symptoms such as; a racing heart, energized muscles and goose pumps. This sudden body reaction to fear is popularly known as the ‘flight or fight response’. Here is a brief rundown of the physiological reactions caused by fear.

Physical reactions to fear

Fear causes body reactions that vary depending on the intensity of fear, the timing and the available coping options. Some common physiological reactions to fear include;

Temporary immobility

Fear literally causes the body to freeze in place for a few seconds. This is because of the overwhelming terror which causes a person to remain put due to uncertainty of what to do next. Although immobility can be viewed as a disadvantage when ganger is impending, it is only momentary and it gives the brain a chance to formulate a viable plan to address the fear. The momentary break stirs the body to be creative and come up with an reasonable response.

Fleeing from immediate danger

Depending on the intensity of fear, a person can either run away or walk away to avoid imminent danger. Fleeing sometimes can be when a body part immediately jerks away from potential danger. For instance you will notice that when a person is about to be slapped they involuntarily and automatically try to escape the result. This is an example of a situation where the body is fleeing from danger. Another common example of the body fleeing form danger is when you quickly remove your hand from an object once you notice a burning sensation.


Fear causes panicking which puts the body on an alert mode that features panting because of a racing heartbeat. Panicking is also characterized by sweating profusely, goose-bumps and the general inability to focus or concentrate. Panicking is easily noticeable particularly if the fear is intense. Interrogators look for symptoms of panic when trying to understand the state of mind of the person being interrogated. In fact these panic symptoms are detectable in lie-detector machines. These machines notice any changes in heart rate and ascertain whether a person is being truthful or not.


This is a response to fear that seeks to relinquish fear by destroying the object or person causing imminent danger. Fighting is a normal though not very reasonable reaction to fear. For an individual to peacefully co-exist with others, he/she has to desist from fighting unless it is an absolute necessity. For instance if you sense that a dog is about to bite you and you act by fighting it, you are being unreasonable and senseless because you are putting your life in danger. It is advisable to take a moment to think which reaction is most appropriate for a particular situation.

Other physiological responses to fear

Other body reactions to fear include increased blood pressure, dry mouth and tightening of muscles which causes trembling.

Stress and anxiety

When facing imminent danger, the human mind begins conceiving and imagining all the possible catastrophes that could happen. This further aggravates and increases the intensity of fear leading to anxiety and stress. If stress resulting from fear is not efficiently managed, an individual can become unhinged and suffer consistent panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic disorder and serious heart attacks in individuals with a pre-existent heart condition. Extreme fear left unresolved also results in phobias. A phobia is an extremely intense, persistent and irrational fear.

A simplified look at how the body reacts to fear

  • Immediately you recognize imminent danger, concern or threat, an almond shaped structure in the brain called the amygdala activates a cascade of changes that help you respond to fear appropriately. Essentially, the amygdala tells your body that something bad is happening and it needs to respond appropriately.
  • Dilation of the pupils to allow more light into an individual’s eyes. Letting in more light heightens your perception significantly. This is very advantageous particularly if you are in search of a feasible escape route.
  • The reason panic happens is because you start breathing rapidly and this infuses increased oxygen to all the major muscles of the body.
  • How the adrenal glands react to fear

The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is extremely important when there is imminent danger because it heightens focus and concentration. The adrenal glands also accelerate the production of a hormone that not only accelerates heart beats but also signals the liver to release stored energy.

  • When in fear, a person’s stomach will clench and the intestines will slow down significantly. This enables increased blood flow to the brain and all the major muscle of the body. This is because you need all your muscles and brain to be sufficiently supplied with oxygenated blood.

How to control physiological reactions to fear

Regularly practice how to calm your body

When the body senses imminent danger, it will respond by either fighting or fleeing. To avoid over senseless overreaction to fear it is necessary to train your brain on hoe to counteract the effects of hormones that respond to fear. These calming exercises are aimed at endorphins to overtake the effect of cortisol. Some of the ways you can train your body to react calmly to fear include:

Regular breathing exercises

Breathing exercises help you learn to control your physical response to fear because you gradually learn techniques that can help you refrain from over reacting when overwhelmed with fear. Meditation will come in handy in making you react reasonably to threats.

Exercise regularly

Going to the gym, yoga exercise and even a karate class can make you more confident in your ability to handle threats. This confidence goes a long way in helping you control physiological reactions to fear.

Reduce the amount of sugar and caffeine in your diet

It is an indisputable fact that too much caffeine and sugar significantly fuels the flight and fight response. Also consume foods rich in tryptophan such as cheese, poultry, nuts and bananas. Tryptophan calms your brain and helps relax you to avoid extreme and unreasonable reactions to imminent danger.

It is normal and perfectly healthy to have physiological reactions because of fear. However, we should not allow fear overwhelm us to the point of affecting our general well-being.