When Fear Shows Itself: Part 1

Understanding the Mechanisms of Fear Better.

During a deep spell of the most uncommon fear that I have ever experienced in my life, a quote showed itself to me that said, “ Fear is the only feeling that grows smaller as you move toward it.” This of course indicates that fear itself will grow bigger as we hide away from it.  It also led me to wonder, in my work, how is it possible to allow the fear to exist within us, for a long enough time, that we can tolerate leaning in towards it?

Fear, you see, is in the territory of the unknown; we cannot control it, we struggle to understand it, fear to work through it. Fear itself can be a glimmer in our minds, a hurricane that takes over our lives, an unopened package that unexpectedly opens. How fear and trauma works is a mystery that we can never fully know.

What exactly is fear? I am humbled in my limited knowledge as a psychotherapist of how fear works, but I would like to share what I have grappled to understand. Fear. On a scientific level, fear is a physiological emotional response that has been developed over millions of years as an adaptation to survival within life. Yes, the survival-of-the-fittest depend on fear responses, to this day, to survive. Once a dangerous stimulus is registered by the frontal cortex of the brain (for example a car crashing into your car or a snake in front of your next step), a signal is sent to the hippocampus and the amygdala, which then send signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases “stress hormones”, such as adrenaline and epinephrine, which then trigger a fight-or-flight response.

Fight and flight are not the only fear responses. Lets break down the four (yes four) instinctual fear responses. Up until recently, there were three known fear responses. You have probably heard of them as they are well know: the fight, flight, and freeze responses. They are fairly self-explanatory as well. All survival mechanisms are triggered by the stress hormones.  The fight response initiates a protective, self-defensive, and sometimes violent response. An example of a fight response would be if a bird attacks you and you attempt to bat the bird away. A flight response is, well, running for your safety.  A version of this in the animal kingdom is when the Ostriches in Africa run from the lions who are gathering to attack them.  An example of this in a more convoluted, human world would be if someone fled the state that their perpetrator or attacker lives in to feel more safe.  The freeze response is demonstrated when a rabbit sees a predator. Although adrenaline is pumping through their body, they freeze to remain invisible. After they are safe, they often shake to discharge the fear and adrenaline energy that was being held in their body as they sat still, waiting for their predator to leave. Humans also have freeze responses during attacks.  For example, someone who is held at gun point may freeze, instead of trying to run or fight. Victims who have reacted with a freeze response have an especially hard time recovering from their attack. Not only did they feel helpless during the attack, but they also stored all of the fear in their bodies after the attack. The hopeless/ helpless feeling often lingers in someone's body, shaking their self-agency and their confidence that they are safe. Unlike animals, humans do not “shake” or have a mechanism to work through the stored fear energy after a freeze response. When the fear is stored in the body like this, it is often reopened during events that remind the victim of their attack. This is how post traumatic stress disorder works.

Recently, I heard through a colleague that a fourth fear response has been identified. This fear response is know as the fawn response, or as I like to call it, the “cling” response. This response seems to be an exclusively human fear response. The cling response is where the victim of abuse clings to their perpetrator, the person who is abusing them.  Think of an abusive relationship; often times, in an abusive relationship, the victim of abuse has a very difficult time leaving the relationship. Their fear response is to cling to the person abusing them, to protect themselves from more abuse. A very classic example of the cling response is Stockholm Syndrome, where a kidnapped victim comes to believe that they love their kidnapper.  This type of trauma is often replayed in a current abusive relationship, but may stem from an earlier relationship, perhaps with the victim’s parent in their childhood. This type of replaying is an example of post traumatic stress disorder and relational trauma. 

In my next blog, I will discuss more on working through fear, post traumatic stress disorder, and relational trauma.



Bianca Aarons LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco through the auspices of the Grateful Heart Holistic Therapy Center. Bianca’s specialties include attachment, trauma, sexual abuse, post traumatic stress, relationship issues, depression issues, couples work and work with teenagers. Learn more about Bianca at www.biancaaarons.com, email her at BiancaAaronsMFT@gmail.com, or call her at (415) 553-5346 to ask any questions or to set up a consultation session.