The Science and Psychology Behind Your Weird Fears

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My wife kills the cockroaches in my house…because I’m scared of them. They don’t creep me out or make me nervous, and it’s not that I just don’t like them. I am legit scared of them. When I see one alive and roaming free I tense up, my heart starts beating faster, and I check the room for escape routes. If my wife is not around and I have to forcibly remove the roach from its scummy existence, there is a process. It takes several minutes for me to work up the courage to approach the bug, another several minutes to decide what the best plan of action is, and then I strike like Thor with Mjolnir (well, if Mjolnir was a shoe). A gentle tap from a small shoe would be enough to kill the thing, but at this point I am so pumped with adrenaline that I could nearly put a hole in the floor smacking the bug into oblivion and sending it back to whatever hell it came from. I am 6 foot 2 inches tall, 205 pounds, and a three inch cockroach will send me climbing on a table and screaming like a cartoon character. Cockroaches can’t bite (at least not the ones where I live), they don’t sting, and they’re really not difficult to kill. Why do they scare me? I am not, on the other hand, scared of spiders. I will calmly walk up on any spider, take a good look at him, and gently stomp him without hesitation. Spiders can bite, and there are plenty of venomous spiders where I live. If I’m going to be scared of a bug, it should be a spider!

We all have things that scare us or make us uncomfortable, that when you think about it, really shouldn’t bother us at all. For some people it can be clowns, heights, enclosed spaces, public speaking, etc. Ever wonder why you’re scared of what you’re scared of? First, you need to know that fear is a good thing and it serves a purpose. If we weren’t scared of anything, we’d all pretty much die before we hit ten years old. Fear is our body’s way of telling us that there is something that is threatening our physical or psychological safety.

Here comes the science part – brace yourselves for science! There are likely two factors in play when we talk about irrational fears: memory and the amygdala. What is the amygdala you ask? It’s a tiny, almond-shaped portion of our brain that is located in the limbic system and is responsible for helping us act before we think (you read that right – act before you think). It’s responsible for quick reactions to keep us alive. Flinching when something is coming at your face? That’s the amygdala. Jumping off a road you are walking down when you see a snake? Amygdala again. When the amygdala senses danger it just takes over, and doesn’t ask for permission. If the amygdala thinks you are in danger, it will do something. And the amygdala is stupid, like, really dumb. It is easily tricked. Think about that time you really saw a snake in the road and it scared you so bad you maybe had to change your pants. Now think about walking down that same road and seeing a stick out of the corner of your eye. What will you do? You will leap out of the way like that stick is a snake! Your amygdala is a bit over-active. This can happen with anything your body perceives as threatening. Think about people experiencing PTSD, especially those who return from combat. A popping balloon can sound a lot like a gun shot and suddenly their mind takes them back to the warzone. Why? To protect them.

Let’s talk about the memory’s role in fear. Why are memories important? Because they don’t work like you think they do. We often think of memories as files in a filing cabinet (or iphone videos for you millennials) that we can look at and say, “Oh cool! That’s exactly what happened!” as we watch a frame by frame replay. This just isn’t the case. Memory is all about associations. Every time we experience something, our brain processes that experience in its entirety. That means the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, touches, feelings, thoughts, ideas, etc. associated with that moment are all coded into our memory. Let’s do a little experiment:

Imagine that you are at home and you picked up a big, juicy lemon. It’s the brightest shade of yellow you have ever seen. You lay it on a cutting board and slice it in half. As you slice it you see juice from the lemon ooze all over the cutting board. You pick up the lemon half and take a huge bite out of the center.

Are you salivating? Can you almost taste the sourness of the lemon? That’s because you have tasted a lemon before, and just the thought of tasting another one brought back those memories. Think about it this way. What comes to your mind when you hear a song that was popular when you were in high school? What do you think of when someone else is cooking a recipe your mom used to make? Have you ever caught a whiff of someone’s perfume/cologne and immediately thought about a person you used to know who smelled like that? Remember that song that was playing during the worst day of your life? You hate that song…but why? Because you have made an association. That’s how memories work, and there is a psychology component to that as well. How do we evaluate and determine if something is scary or pleasant? In the blink of an eye we take in information and make judgements about a situation based on our past experiences (all those associations) and the experiences of others. The psychology comes in when we make a subjective judgement about a situation. That was a lot of information – are you still awake? Still breathing? Good. Let’s keep going!

Now we are going to apply what we just learned to fear. There was a lizard crawling on your arm when you were three years old and your mom absolutely freaked out. She lost her ever-loving mind and went into full-on freak out mode (because she’s scared of lizards), and her panicking caused you to have a Vesuvius-esque melt-down. Now you’re an adult, and you’re still scared of lizards. You have associated that negative experience (seeing a lizard) with what was happening around you. Your fears may be irrational, but your brain is doing the best job it can to keep you alive and safe. The good news is that you can get rid of these fears if you so choose. Find a counselor who is skilled in this area and they can help you get to the root of your fears and associate new memories with a stimulus. Unfortunately getting rid of these fears usually involves some exposure to the stimuli – and that means if you’re scared of spiders you might be handling one at some point. I am still scared of cockroaches, and I’m okay with that.

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