People are hard-wired to respond to danger. It's actually an ancient system, often called the reptilian brain, honed over centuries to keep us safe. We hear a scream and instantly, without conscious thought, our autonomic nervous system sends a signal from our senses to the fear center of the brain, the amygdala. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline jump-start our body -- the heart starts to race, breathing comes more quickly and sweat breaks out. We're ready to flee or fight.
A split second later, through an entirely different channel, more information arrives in the brain, and we must decide: Is the threat real? We decide, we act, and after the threat is over, our system calms down. Problem solved. We're back to normal.
But if we're on constant guard, stress begins to take its toll. First, we don't think as clearly, with fear overcoming our ability to reason.
"We seem to get stuck," Hollander said. "President Obama can say our chances of getting killed in an act of terrorism is smaller than in an auto accident. But somehow that doesn't quite work in calming our fears."
Other parts of the brain can activate, such as the fronto-striatal-thalamic brain circuit, which triggers obsessive thinking, or the anterior cingulate cortex, which can put us in a constant state of alertness.
"We're told to 'see something, say something,' so now people scan the environment and look for things that don't seem right," Hollander said. "Or we obsess and then develop habits and rituals to ward off bad things. That can be watching TV over and over again to get more information, reading all we can in the media, and all of this is focused on warding off harm."
Antonius of the Jacobs School of Medicine agrees. "Fear is a complex psychophysiological emotional experience that results in alterations in mood, temperament, motivation and personality," he said. "Over time, the chronic experience of fear can morph into serious psychological distress that eventually may develop into a mental disorder."
Or even a physical one. A 201- study looked at 1,700 "apparently healthy active Israeli adults" to see how they cope with the threat of terrorism. Those who showed the most fear had resting heart rates 10 to 20 beats faster than the norm due to changes in a brain chemical that also acts as a brake to the inflammatory system, the study found.
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