Fear and Anxiety Response

William T. Gibson, a Caltech postdoctoral fellow and first author on a study investigating the possibility that fruit flies may experience fear analogous to humans affirms, “…flies have four fundamental drives just as humans do: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating.”

He examined fear in flies by looking at the fundamental building blocks of fear, which he calls “emotion primitives” –

  1. First, fear is persistent. If you hear the sound of a gun, the feeling of fear it provokes will continue for a period of time.
  2. Fear is also scalable; the more gunshots you hear, the more afraid you’ll become.
  3. Fear is generalizable across different contexts, but it is also trans-situational. Once you’re afraid, you’re more likely to respond in fear to other triggers: the clang of a pan, for instance, or a loud knock at the door.

Gibson discovered that fruit flies react to fear basically in the same neurological way that humans do. Does that mean fruit flies experience fear like humans do? Could fear be so ancient that it is built into the deepest levels of my psyche?

Danger takes many forms. What makes me fear a source of danger is probably encoded at the deepest levels of my physical being. Why I experience it differently than another person is probably due more to education and imagination than fact of threat.

I accept that I have subconscious responses to environmental stimuli – “knee-jerk” reactions or reflex action. I don’t have to think about my reaction – in fact I can’t “think” – I just act. When the doctor taps under my knee to test my reflexes, I can’t help but react in a specific and predictable way. When I don’t, the doctor may conclude that I have a neurological problem requiring further work to correct (if possible).

Fear vs Anxiety

Some researchers have suggested an expanded version of the fight-or-flight response, namely, “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” (Bracha, Ralston, Matsunaga, Williams, & Bracha, 2004). Regardless of the built-in response to fear, my body-mind WILL do something about fear whenever it comes up. What, specifically, that response will be may be predetermined by my physical body, which is attuned for interaction with its environment.

Based on the third emotion primitive – “Once you’re afraid, you’re more likely to respond in fear to other triggers” – I use my powerful imagination to help me predict and avoid possible future encounters with danger. Like so many things, I can overdo a good thing and imagine more than is required. This leads me to anxiety – “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” (Google)

The distinction between fear and anxiety is that I tend to respond to real threat with fear, while anxiety is a setup for generating and sustaining fear – along with some fairly nasty side-effects including obesity, heart disease, and other responses to negative stress.

I like Mary C. Lamia’s conceptualization of the difference between fear and anxiety:

Perhaps better clarifying the difference is the notion that where anxiety is foreboding and puts you on alert to a future threat, fear immediately leads to an urge to defend yourself with escape from an impending disaster (Ohman, 2010).

Fear may be innate to the organism – built into my DNA. My subconscious response to fear may also be hard-wired into me. Yet, even hard-wiring can be changed or managed with effective technique. For example, the fear response can be mediated by deep breathing, or EFT tapping, or the concept of taking a knee as we discussed in an earlier post.

Controlling my fear response entails two techniques:

  1. A method to alert myself to the fact that I’m experiencing fear. Sometimes the simple act of acknowledging fear is enough to send it scurrying away.
  2. A method for dealing with the fear response.

I wonder if the same techniques for mediating the fear response may be useful in mediating anxiety.


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