Fear Can be Contagious – How to Protect Yourself

November 19, 2015

Having trouble coping with images of violence around the world but want to stay informed of the news? Try turning off the TV and getting your news from the radio instead.

Fear doesn’t just happen to us when we personally experience something scary. Fear also affects us when we see it expressed in someone else. We can even learn to be afraid of something that is intrinsically non-threatening just by watching it produce fear in others.

A brain imaging study at New York University had one group of people receive a mild electric shock each time they saw a coloured square. A second group was asked to watch video footage of the first group getting the shocks. This second group was then told they were going to participate in a ‘similar experiment’.  Despite the fact that this group didn’t get zapped when they were shown a coloured square, their brains registered fear in the same area of the brain when seeing a coloured square as the group who received the actual zaps.

Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey says, “We learn to become fearful through experience with the fear event, or learning from those people around us, like our parents. Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning, like Pavlov and the salivating dog.”

Brain scans and fMRI’s have identified an area of the brain called the amygdala as the generator of our fear response. The amygdala tells other parts of the brain to secrete chemicals that increase our heart rate and blood flow, making us more alert, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

But we do have the ability to change our brain’s behaviour. Overcoming fear can be a matter of exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations intentionally. For instance, public speaking or fear of the water can be alleviated by something called Exposure and Response Prevention, a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This involves breaking down the process of doing what produces fear and conquering each step until the activity becomes familiar and less scary. Learning to swim when you’re afraid of the water is a matter of starting with putting only your feet in the water. Slowly, over time, getting your whole body under becomes achievable.

Consider these results of brain and cognitive research when reacting to horrible events beyond our control. By following the advice of those who encourage us to go out and live normally, and avoiding people who radiate fear, we could be conditioning our amygdalas to quiet down and only react to true dangers. Like the taxi that is about to hit us.