Category Archives: Psychology

Why Do Things Scare Us? What Makes Your Heart Beat? Inside; Fear Explained.

All of us have had moments when we have been scared out of our skin.  ‘Jumpscare‘ voyeurism, that is watching people react to horror, has become an internet fascination. With big YouTube gamers like Markiplier and Pewdiepie building their early success on playing games like Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy’s, there is something oddly fascinating about horror.

But why do ‘Jumpscares’ cause us to ‘jump’. What is happening inside us and why?

There’s Something In There

‘Everything down here floats,’ that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more’ – Stephen King, It, p 27

Last night I was walking home along a familiar path. It was dark, and the only sounds were the rustling of the bushes and my footsteps on the leaves. It was calm, and the long shadows cast by the gentle moon were reassuring.  I was lost in thought, the humdrum of a busy mind, when, all of a sudden, something appeared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow rise from the bushes, the gentle ambience was broken by a rush of leaves.

Something had come from the darkness. Something unfamiliar, maybe dangerous. Wait no, certainly dangerous. Something inside me saw teeth, claws, my imminent evisceration at the whim of something ancient and devilish.

Immediately I stopped, straightened up and my body was filled with energy. But not good energy, a lance of fear. My heart rate increased, I became super focussed on the shadow, time seemed to slow down and my mind speed up. Within seconds I realised it was nothing, but my body still held on to the fear. Why? What is this emotion? And why did it cause such physical changes.

I would imagine you have had the same. Something moving in the darkness, a loud sudden sound, something out of the ordinary that puts you on edge. We, as humans, and like animals, have a simple and consuming reaction for the sudden imposition of the dangerous unknown, Fear. And the feeling of ‘Fear‘ is just part of a syndrome (a collection of symptoms and physical signs,) that characterises our ‘Fight or Flight (or Freeze) response.

It’s almost as old as life itself, and because of it, we are here.

Fight, Flight or Freeze (FOFOF)

Fear was the hand of the devil holding a scalding hot branding iron and touching your brain and your stomach and yelling at you to run with leaden feet. – Dan Groat, Monarchs and Mendicants

It all comes down to evolution, physiology and psychology. Simply put, those who reacted in an adaptive way to avoid death long enough to mate would pass on their genes. Evolutionary theory suggests that over time, those animals within a species with adaptive traits allowing them to survive and reproduce, would become dominant. Whether this trait is a large plumage, as with Peacocks, or lightening speed, as with Cheetahs, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it works.

So when the ‘monster’ in the bush appeared, I was left with three options. Fight, Flight (leg it,) or freeze (hide.)

Fighting is a solution in very specific circumstances. If you are larger, more powerful, or hold some advantage over the other, you can fight. Many animals faced with threat will make a very quick assessment (often based on simple things like size,) to judge their next move. Many will attack, convinced they will win.

Flight is more common, as most creatures are smaller than their hunters. They will rely on speed, camouflage and a near safe place to survive. This is the normal reaction of a mouse, cat, or anything smaller than you. Not all will run, a spider may attack instead, but this speaks of the system being more complicated than just size. Remember, nature is complicated.

Freezing is a third option, and can occur for a variety of reasons. If you have been spotted, and the eyesight and memory of your predator is good, it probably won’t help. But if you have heard a sudden sound, the predator may not have seen you. If you run, you give off sound, it can chase and find you. If you stay still, it may pass you by. Your natural camouflage is more effective when staying still. Especially in the night.

In my case, I froze. The situation was ambiguous, and humans have a tendency to analyse where they can. The FOFOF response surpasses this tendency, and for good reason, we could be eaten whilst we figure things out. Had it been a bear, my analysis would have given it time to kill me. But weirdly enough, humans tend to freeze quite a lot. It says something about our ancestry.

Where FOFOF Comes From

“Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors encountered a predatory animal like a lion, it was best to react immediately and not stand around thinking about the lion, admiring its beauty or wondering why it was bothering them instead of tracking down some tasty antelope. Thus, the fast track to the amygdala kept our ancestors alive.” – John B. Arden, Rewire your Brain..

The ‘FOFOF’ response is just one evolutionary adaption forged early on in the tree of life. Exposure to danger causes an instant chemical reaction, the secretion of adrenaline, with profound effects on the body. The substance causes the heart rate to rise, blood to be drawn into the limbs and brain, and diverted from our stomachs and pelvic areas**. The body is geared up to be focussed, strong and fighting fit.

And we feel terrified. This is a good thing in short bursts, it tells us that we are in danger. It gives significance to the bodily changes our brain has signalled. It compels us to act, to relieve that feeling by action. Adrenaline is a short lived substance, and ignoring it tends to make the feeling worse. Biologically, prolonged exposure to fear results in anxiety, which can become all consuming and repeated. Panic Attacks are just adrenaline surges caused inappropriately*.

Jumpscares And Entertainment

So with this all in mind, why do we love jumpscares, horror and adrenaline. The simple answer is addiction, the more complicated rooted in deep psychological explanations.  Fear in a ‘contained environment’ (i.e. one which presents no real risk, is often associated with the release of dopamine, our pleasure hormone. This is the same hormone released with cocaine and other drugs, as well as many things that make us ‘happy’.

We become addicted to the situational aspects of horror. It seems crazy to think about it, but it makes sense. If we survive an attack, we feel pleasure. It makes sense for our bodies to reinforce the behaviour that leads to pleasure. This is why we queue for horror films and buy ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’. Its why we love ‘Jumpscares’ and watching others view them. We take pleasure from it.

So  next time you are on the edge of your seat, remember that you are taking pleasure from an ancient system designed to save your life. Kind of macabre, right?

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  • Learn more about ‘Evolution’ by reading ‘The Selfish Gene‘ by Richard Dawkins

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim.

*The subjects addressed in this article have been simplified to reflect their effects on a majority of the population. There is always room for individual variation in behaviour (and this is fundamental to evolutionary theory anyway,) which means that not everyone will react the same way. Anxiety for example has many different syndromes, be it Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder, with different effects on behaviour and emotion. The aetiology (cause,) of these diseases are multifaceted, and deserve their own article as opposed to a throwaway clause.

** This is why we often feel a need to ‘shit our pants’ during fearful situations. It is also possibly why ‘Performance Anxiety’ is such an issue, if you are nervous around sex your brain isn’t focussed on diverting blood to the desired regions (and things are slack,) and the last thing we can focus on is sex. 

 

 

 

Fed Up Of Feeling Sad? Learn The Trick To True Happiness. Stop Waiting, Start Doing.

“Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling, enduring, and accomplishing.” – George Sheehan

Sadness is not just a human problem. It is a problem shared by animals, and likely present since soon after the dawn of life. What sets us aside from most animals, with notable exceptions, is our ability to question our purpose. Humans, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy, see self actualisation as the pinnacle of aspiration. Disregarding the basics of food, shelter, love and ego, it is making a change to the world that matters to us most.

A Loss Of Purpose

‘Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress.; working hard for something we love is called passion.’ Simon Sinek, Author, Consultant and Motivational Speaker.

In a popular video, Simon Sinek explains that millennials find traditional jobs difficult as they feel that they are not making a change. And whilst this generation is blessed like no other, it is also the most sad. Information is made easy to find, health is at an all time high, and opportunities almost endless. And yet, within this machine of progress, the very cogs are rusting and breaking apart.

But as the world gets smaller, so do we. Instead of being the centre of our community, someone who seems to matter, we are just one of seven billion. We are saturated by news of the successes of others, taught to envy and idolise celebrities, and regard great thinkers with a theological awe. We are set against impossibly high standards, and it can seem fruitless to even try.

For a species that thrives on purpose, and achievement through it, this could not be more troubling.

Achievement Is Not Happiness

Some of the happiest people in the world go home smelling to
high heaven at the end of the day (Morgan Freeman, playing God in Bruce Almighty.)

It is a common myth that achievement buys happiness. When you look at PhD students (as Psychologist Jordan Peterson explains,) they become sad, or even depressed, when they finally hand in their work. When you finish reading a book most often the thrill of the story dies, the elation of conclusion concluded. So why is it that when we work for something, its achievement leaves us hollow?

The answer may be something spiritual, cultural, biological, all or none. Religion teaches us to live as God would like, to aspire to holiness through his attribution. Spirituality promises unity between self and the universe, achievement through the dissolution of the delusion of separateness. Culture dictates that we must have the right job, make money, marry or have children. Biology rewards achievement with chemicals, and does so over and over. Each asks, with  the caveat of some spiritual beliefs, that we attain a malleable goal that can be recorded.

And yet those of religious faith, spiritual leaders, great men and women and even animals at the top of their ecological niche will continue to want and to be sad. So there must be something else. Something you can’t hold, display or record.

Define who you are to find your purpose

You may not associate actor Matthew McConaughey with sage wisdom (a tragedy of media and preconceptions,) but in a 2017 speech to the University of Houston, he explains that the start of self actualisation is the deciding what you are not. He argues passionately that by actively addressing who you aren’t, you are only left with who you are. He said;

“The first step that leads to our identity in life is usually not “I know who I am,” but rather “I know who I am not.” 

Finding identity is instrumental to happiness, as  the true and honest realisation of who you are can open your mind to what you want. What you dream, and the purpose that you have. And by purpose I do not mean achievement, but the process of following that process with all you are and what you have to give. But first we can ask, what can you forget?

What you are is not a job. It is not a document, or a bank account. It is not your Facebook, your diet or your friends. These are just measurements we give ourselves to place value on our existence. But we exist in mind, and indeed purpose, regardless of these things. To live in the knowledge that you are following your purpose, that honest dream, stripped of all accolade, is the true process of self actualisation.

It does not require applause or award, the pleasure is in the doing.

Living with Purpose is the key to happiness.

We know that many creatures can feel sadness, and that achievement of a goal will not always bring happiness. We know that although our opportunities are unparalleled  compared to any other time in history, depression is at its highest level. We know that who you are remains when all labels are removed, and that lesson is a Universal truth. So how can you find happiness by simply living?

The answer is to live true to your purpose. Find joy in the doing, regardless of the result. Reading a book is more pleasurable than finishing it, climbing a mountain more valuable than planting the flag, playing an instrument more challenging that listening back. Happiness is found when the future is forgotten, and the present is found joyful in its encapsulation of activity.

So instead of worrying about being great, remembered, rich or powerful, enjoy living toward your purpose without needing recognition. Whatever that may be.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. If you suffer from depression, or suspect that you may, please seek medical advice.  Image courtesy of Aainlm

 

 

 

 

Why Do We Worry So Much? Turns Out, Its Nature Falling Behind. Inside; The Science Of Anxiety.

There are times when I feel that the world is exploding around me. My heart is racing, hands shaking and breath hard to catch. Often there is no clear reason for these symptoms, or the panic that rushes through my brain. Other times I find myself unable to sleep, and as I watch the hours pass in the twilight hours I wonder why I feel like this. But the answer is something common to us all, Anxiety.

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…. And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self.” Soren Kierkegaard

So what is Anxiety, what does it feel like and how can we live with it? I teamed up with Metro journalist and Mental Health Advocate Hattie Gladwell to get to the bottom of it.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a term used to describe the symptoms of a number of ”Mental Health” conditions ranging from ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder‘ through to specific phobias. These can include agoraphobia (fear of being out of a safe place.) It can also include such things as ‘Panic Attacks’ and be linked to conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Really it represents a whole spectrum of conditions where the world can be uncomfortable to the point of disease. The official definition given by the ICD-10 (a national registry of disease,) reads like this;

‘A category of psychiatric disorders which are characterised by anxious feelings or fear often accompanied by physical conditions associated with anxiety’

A rather less than elucidating definition. But what does Anxiety actually feel like?

What does Anxiety feel like?

“I am exhausted from trying to be stronger than I feel.” -Unknown (source: paintedteacup.com)

Dr Google will tell  you many symptoms, but it seems that the experience of anxiety is very individual. At the centre of it is worry, which can be accompanied by physical symptoms. These symptoms, if clustered together, can present a ‘syndrome’, which can lead to a specific diagnosis. This is all rather complex, and without seeing a doctor, self-diagnosis is dangerous. But we aren’t here to talk about specific types, but what it can feel like to live with it.

‘I have health anxiety, its all or nothing. I will get a surge in adrenaline, hot and cold flushes, shaking.  It happens more when I’m isolated and have more time to think about it. Most days I am panicking that my whole life will be put at hold.’

For me the experience is not entirely different. As a patient of depression, I consider anxiety (a well recognised association of depression,) as an uneasy partner. For me the problems started young, fear of making a fool of myself in front of friends, or fear of being disliked. Over time this changed, and my concerns became focussed on relative fame, (if you could call my experience that,) of being judged by others for my words and opinions.

I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear’  – Steve Maraboli

This may seem silly to some, but I have had panic attacks after tweeting. I have stayed up for hours refreshing a timeline, worrying what others may say. These feelings have become more general, to a point where a phone call from an unrecognised number begins a spiral. Its uncomfortable, draining and often completely unnecessary, For me anxiety is a terrible affliction that seems bizarre later.

Living with Anxiety

If you suffer from unhelpful feelings of anxiety or catastrophic thinking, your Chimp is in control. – Dr Steve Peters, Psychiatrist 

Anxiety, for many, is a lifelong problem. Depression has its ‘Black Dog’ (mine is named, and I have grown kind to it,) but Anxiety may need a different animal. You can pick yours, but mine can be a Vulture. Treatment is difficult, but there is great success in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy  and medication. These treatments recognise the problem as a system of thought, action, reaction and behaviour.

By identifying your own, and making adaptions, you can begin to recognise when you are being taken over and do something about it. In his best selling book ‘The Chimp Paradox‘, Psychiatrist Steve Peters describes these feelings as being hijacked by ‘The Chimp’, an analogy for the emotional centre of the brain.  By recognising this, and through several techniques, Peters believes that you can take back control.

It is a great book, so give it a read.

Interestingly, these ideas are not new. In fact, Neuroscientist Sam Harris has discussed the overlap between neurocircuitry, religion and spirituality at length in his book ‘Waking Up.’ It is a big subject, but it may be that ancient religions, such as Buddhism, have already figured out how to deal with the pressures of the world by reconsidering their significance.

‘I am undergoing CBT, which I am finding very helpful. I use apps, but they aren’t a cure, but can be short term relief. They help me calm down. I tell myself that although things are horrible right now, it will pass’ – Hattie 

So if you are like me, there is hope.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to discuss it, or pitch ideas for follow ups, follow me on twitter or email me at benjanaway@outlook.com. I am happy for this work to be reposted, just let me know if you do!

What’s Next?

The views above are those of Dr Janaway alone and do not necessarily represent those of his affiliates. They should not be taken as medical advice. If you are concerned about your health please access your local health provider. Please feel free to follow Dr Janaway on twitter. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

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