The Ultimate Silent Killer
Imagine you are lost. You have no map, and no GPS, and your mobile phone is out of range. What are your thoughts and feelings? “I am going to be late. Where am I? What am I going to do?” You are likely to feel out of control and anxious.
When you meet an obstacle for which you think you are unprepared, when you feel you lack the resources you need to cope with a situation, your body automatically undergoes a series of biochemical reactions in which you experience stress and fear.
At its most primitive level, fear keeps human beings out of the mouths of wild animals and away from dark, dangerous places. It also goads us out of our comfort zone so we can experience new things, and grow and evolve as people.
Fear gets us out into the world. It drives us to learn, achieve, and acquire knowledge. Fear creates a sense of urgency to fix what is not right. Fear has pushed society to overcome tuberculosis and certain cancers, to fly through the sky, and to take care of basic survival needs such as food, water, and shelter. On a purely physical level, fear prompts our bodies to heal wounds, survive traumas, and run from danger.
Go back to the example of being lost without a map. Fear could incite you to muster the resources you have and work hard to find a solution. In this case, fear results in a productive response and action. Once you find your way again, your anxiety and the adrenaline that helped you to safety usually subside and your body returns to balance.
Now imagine you have been lost in the woods alone for hours. You have nothing with you but the small lunch and bottle of water you packed for what was supposed to be a short hike. In this scenario, you may be so unnerved that you stop thinking clearly, go beyond the kind of adrenaline rush that might help you, and move instead into panic mode.
In this case, fear and stress are no longer helpful but harmful—they override your body’s normal functions and send your mind into a place where you no longer operate rationally. This is just one dangerous side effect of unchecked fear, and unless you can get it under control, it will be difficult for you to find your way to safety.
Fear and stress are necessary and natural parts of life when they function as intended—as a temporary, short-lived state that raises blood pressure, quickens breath, and pumps cortisol and adrenaline into the system to keep us out of harm’s way. Fear and stress damage your health when they strike too often or linger too long, a problem you certainly have suffered from if you live in the modern world.
Today, rest and quiet time are a luxury. We set an alarm to wake us up in the morning so that we rarely sleep until our bodies are rested. We gulp down breakfast and rush to work, where we’re constantly under pressure to perform more and faster. Ten minutes for lunch? Oh, just skip it—who needs to eat? After eight to ten hours of madness, it’s hurry home for a couple of hours of quality time, by yourself or with your family, before going to bed and starting the whole cycle over again the next day.
Oh, yes, and then comes the weekend, filled with shopping and mowing and cleaning and baseball and ballet and social and cultural events to attend. Who has time to rest? I’m exhausted just thinking about it!
Our twenty-first-century lifestyles keep us operating in a constant state of anxiety and fear. It might not be active or obvious, but your fear is idling so high all the time that it does precipitate what I call the Fear Response. Whether it is gridlock on the morning commute, a disagreement at the office, a migraine, or a divorce, the body responds the same way: it locks into a cycle of fear symptoms such as tight muscles, poor digestion, a racing heart, anxiety, and or inability to sleep.
The problem is that we usually do not run off the adrenaline and cortisol that builds up in our bloodstream as our ancestors did when they spotted a lion and hightailed it to safety. Instead, the physical effects of the Fear Response course through our systems day in and day out as we sit in front of a crashed computer or fume at a customer service rep over the phone. Fear builds on itself until it becomes a biofeedback loop we cannot turn off.
Eventually, it overwhelms our minds and bodies and results in what I call “negative physiology,” a biochemical imbalance that is at the root of almost all diseases.
Fear and its corollaries of anger, shame, and loneliness are sometimes normal and healthy emotions. Too much of them for too long can kill you—literally.
The Physiology of Fear
Science shows that fear affects every aspect of your body and mind, including your brain function, immune system, mental and emotional states, and propensity toward illness. How?
The Fear Response stimulates the amygdala-hippocampus complex (AHC), your emotional response center and the primitive part of the brain, often called “the lizard brain.” The lizard brain directs the emotions or behaviors that are necessary for survival of the species, such as fear and aggression. The lizard brain also stores the memory of any given negative experience or threat so that you can react even faster to it in the future.1
Stimulation of the lizard brain triggers a cascade of events, culminating in the production of hormones and peptides, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that cause physical changes in the body. At the same time, changes occurr in the brain that prevent you from doing any complex problem solving—you actually revert to a more primitive being whose main goal is physical self-preservation.2
The Physical Changes
To best understand the Fear Response, imagine this: a lion is chasing you. Or, to use a more modern-day example: you’re working on an extremely tight deadline and your company’s success depends on your finishing a project and finishing it well. Is it a good time to take a nap? Ah, no. The Fear Response eliminates any chance of that because it sends adrenaline coursing through the brain to keep you alert, aroused, and hypervigilant. It is not a good time to reproduce either, so your reproductive system shuts down (hormonal mayhem!). It is not such a good time to forage for food, so your digestive system shuts off. You might experience contractions of the esophagus or slowing down of the intestines (peristalsis). Since you need to be strong enough to fight or run, the blood flow to the brain and large muscle groups increases and the muscles themselves tense, specifically in the lower back, neck, and shoulders. The fists and jaw jut forward so that your face appears threatening—just imagine the face you make when someone tries to take your parking spot!
All this activity requires fuel, so the body initiates catabolism, a process that takes nutrients out of the system so you can use them for energy. With catabolism, the bones break down to release calcium and magnesium, muscles break down to provide protein, fat breaks down to produce glucose. To get more oxygen for energy, you breathe faster. If you are cut or wounded, the immune system rushes to the rescue to clot the blood if necessary. It sends white blood cells out to fight infection or starts allergic reactions to keep out foreign substances. Meanwhile, to get the fuel and immune cells quickly to the places where they are needed, your heart rate and blood pressure rise.
Symptoms of the Fear Response
•Brain:You are hyperalert, unable to sleep, anxious.
•Muscles:You feel tense, especially in your neck, back, shoulders, and jaw.
•Reproduction:You miss your period or have light menstruation or low libido or sperm count.
•Gastrointestinal tract:You are constipated or have loose stools, heartburn, or cramping.
•Blood flow:You have cold hands and feet.
•Heart:Your heart races and pumps harder and your blood pressure rises.
•Lungs:You breathe faster or more shallowly.
•Immune system:Your white blood cells get ready for a possible attack, causing inflammation.
Check It Out!
You can see for yourself how the Fear Response affects your body. Try following these steps.
1.Close your eyes.
2.Think about a stressful or upsetting experience. Try to imagine that you are there again.
3.Pay attention to your breathing.
4.Things to notice:
•Are you holding your breath?
•Are you breathing more shallowly or faster?
•Do you notice your chest feels tighter?
•Do you notice if your shoulders may be falling forward?
•Do you feel a “stuck” feeling in your upper chest or throat?
5.Now open your eyes and set the intention to go through your day, paying attention to when and if you hold your breath and the associated circumstances. Notice any other bodily sensations or feelings that occur when you are experiencing stress.
Most of you will find that you hold your breath during stressful situations or even when thinking about them. In fact, you might notice that you are tensing your shoulders or holding your breath most of the day. If so, it’s time to wake up—you’re killing yourself!
Fear and Health
The Fear Response is like a fire—beneficial when it cooks your food but harmful if it is not extinguished. If the Fear Response continues too long or unregulated, the body stays in a constant state of stress and pathological problems inevitably arise, including increases in blood pressure and thickening of and tears in blood vessel walls. Excess production of fatty acids and blood sugar may lead to deposits in these tears and formation of atherosclerotic plaques, eventually resulting in heart disease and stroke. The combination of excessive adrenaline and cortisol production and high levels of insulin released from the pancreas in response to elevated glucose levels may eventually lead to insulin-resistant diabetes and other metabolic disorders such as high cholesterol, especially when your diet is rich in simple sugars and/or carbohydrates. As cortisol levels rise, fat is deposited in different areas of your body to store fuel—that’s why you develop that lovely spare tire around the waist.
In the past, when large, scary animals threatened your life, the Fear Response helped you either fight or run away. The Fear Response subsided when the danger was over. Today, however, when your brain reacts to a social or psychological stressor as if a lion is close on your heels, your physical activity response is more likely to involve watching TV or working on the computer than sprinting for the nearest tree. You do not use up the energy generated by the Fear Response, so your body deposits it, storing it in your fat cells instead. These fat cells then secrete the same inflammatory cells that turn on the Fear Response, causing your body to produce more cortisol and therefore deposit more fat. Get the picture?
Fear Response Overload Leads To3
•High blood pressure
•Heart disease and strokes
•Infertility and sexual dysfunction
•Muscle tension and pain
•Arthritis and other inflammatory problems
•Memory loss and poor concentration
•High glucose and high cholesterol
•Increased risk for osteoporosis
•Weakened immune system
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol, inflammatory cells, and adrenaline can also lead to many pathological problems in the brain, including:
•Increases in free radical and oxidative stress leading to memory loss
•Changes in brain chemicals such as a rise in neuropeptides that increase the desire to overeat and decrease the impulse for physical activity
•Decreases in serotonin which lead to cravings for sweets, fats, and other junk foods
•Decreases in the brain’s ability to use glucose so that you lose brainpower
Excerpted from The Love Response by Eva M. Selhub, M.D. with Divina Infusino. Copyright © 2009 by Eva M. Selhub, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.