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How Fear Alters Your Perception

Posted Jun 25 2008 5:09pm


While driving to work the other morning, I heard aninteresting storyon NPR about facial expressions. Researchers were trying to solve a simple question: why is it that all the world’s cultures share facial expressions? Fear always looks like fear. Disgust always looks like disgust. Anger always looks like anger.

One of the theories is that at your facial expressions are not just expressions of emotion, but that they serve a purpose. For example, when you become fearful, your eyes widen and your nostrils become larger. It’s as if your body is saying, “I sense danger. I need to take in more of my environment. I need to be more aware.” By widening the eyes, you see more. By opening the nostrils, you take in more air. It’s a physiological response to fear, and it’s a response that could save your life.

This has some significance for those of us living with chronic anxiety. It’s an important reminder that what we’re experiencing is a physiological response, not just an emotional one. When we have a panic attack, or a period of intense anxiety, we aren’t “just afraid.” Our bodies are actually responding to this stimuli physically.

So what does this mean?

Basically, your body is doing many things to prepare itself for danger. It’s increasing your respiratory rate. Your digestion will likely slow down (or, in severe cases, your bowels or bladder may empty as the body attempts to rid itself of unnecessary distractions like digestive activities). These are all normal responses to fear. But this also means that anxiety heightens your perception. Your eyes will be wider and your senses sharper.

It’s during times like this that we often notice strange things about our bodies. Maybe it’s a new lump.Is it a tumor?Maybe it’s a strange tickle in the throat?Oral cancer?Or maybe it’s just racing thoughts.Am I going insane?What you must always remember, however, is that the fear has affected your perception. You’ve become the panicky equivalent of the Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman. You’re going to notice these things because your body is responding to the fear. Your body thinks that your increased perception may just save your life — and, if you were being chased by a pack of wolves, it actually might — but in our case, this heightened perception becomes a new source of fear. We interpret these as reasons to be afraid, not responses to fear.

So, the next time you’re in a state of panic and you think that you’ve discovered a new disease or disorder, just remember: you’re in no condition to judge your health when you’re under such stress.

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