The Science And Wisdom Of Fear

Being in a continuous state of fear is common in the world today.

Our fears run the gamut from COVID-19 (and their vaccines) to fears around safety for our children in schools and an uncertainty about the future of our world…

In taking an ancestral perspective, fear serves a purpose in keeping us safe. It alerts the body of danger, to help us move out of harm’s way.

In these modern times, our fear isn’t isolated to our family and friends’ events, –  we are exposed to the traumas throughout the whole world.

Wars, poverty, natural disasters, and displacement – we see it all and it contributes to building our fear. It’s no wonder so many of us feel as if we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. 

Fear often goes hand in hand with stress and anxiety. When fear, stress and anxiety move out of the realm of short-term survival and become chronic, they can have a detrimental effect on our health.

In Functional Medicine we are always turning to the root cause of health concerns and stress is a critical piece to not overlook. In that context, it’s important to explore our relationship to fear. 

New science points to the gut-brain axis, nutrition status and even hormonal balance as a driver of fear. Scientists now measure fear as neuronal oscillations in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

This provides a physiological measurement that points to the degree of fear expression in the body. 

This article looks at new research on fear and its connection to something you might not expect: estrogen!

You’ll learn more about:

  • The definition of fear and fear in science
  • Linking fear and stress
  • The connection between fear and estrogen levels
  • Action steps to take to overcome an overactive fear response

What is fear?

The definition of fear is “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger” or “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.”

The body often takes sensory inputs from the environment and then interprets them as a threat. But, the same stress response happens in the body just from the input of our thoughts.

The body perceives and reacts to our thoughts and stress, whether it is real and immediate or imagined and just a possible scenario in the future. 

Fear seems simple enough, but there is actually a large debate in the scientific community when defining fear on a mechanistic level in the body. Some argue that fear is purely psychological and emotional, defined by behaviors.

While others argue that fear is biological. Experts may view fear differently, whether they are a psychologist or a neuroscience and a consensus definition from the scientific community is yet to be reached. 

Fear may be acute, such as encountering a spider or experiencing an imminent threat. Fear can also be an immobilizing experience that prevents us from going after our dreams. Fear of rejection, failure, success and death are examples.

It’s common in the Functional Medicine space to see fear around a medical diagnosis, fear around letting go of poor health habits and even fear around food. 

When fear produces anxiety and becomes chronic, it affects quality of life and the trajectory of health. 

Why Do We Experience Fear? 

Fear’s job is to keep us safe. Fear alerts us of a threat so we respond by leaving a situation or taking other measures to remain out of harm’s way. In many ways, this description sounds like how the body responds to stress. And truly they go hand-in-hand. 

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA-axis for short, describes the chain of command in the body’s stress response. The hypothalamus in the brain works to maintain balance, or homeostasis, in the body.

When the hypothalamus interprets stress by way of sensory input, it tells the nearby pituitary gland to alert the adrenals. As you might imagine, all of this communication is carried out by your hormones.

The adrenal glands then release cortisol, epinephrine and other hormones/chemicals that allow the body to run, fight, hide, freeze or do whatever it needs to do to regain safety. 

When the stressful situation doesn’t end or we continue to have stressful and fearful thoughts, the HPA-axis is on overdrive. (Remember that stress and fear can be real or imagined. They still produce the same physiological response).

The adrenals are only able to keep up this high level of production for so long and eventually the HPA-axis will become unbalanced or suppressed. This is called HPA-axis dysfunction, which can be measured and assessed through Functional Medicine testing such as the DUTCH test

We know from animal research that both stressful events and social isolation induce HPA-axis dysfunction and increase the memory of fear, which influences behavior.

When there is chronic stress and HPA-axis dysfunction, the brain remains in the limbic loop, or in the survival response. When fear memory is heightened, this procession underlies and drives anxiety. 

This is certainly not the best place from which to derive long-term health and makes it hard to heal the body and thrive in life. 

Estrogen Connection 

Certainly stress increases fear, and new research is shedding light on differences in fear between males and females. 

The research shows that having ample estrogen levels is protective against heightened fear recall, which also means enhanced fear expression or just more fear.

This might explain why fear and anxiety are a hallmark of the postpartum time when estrogen levels are low. And, perhaps why anxiety affects twice as many women as men. 

In this German study, recently published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers looked at 20 men, 20 women with natural menstrual cycles and 20 women on birth control. The naturally cycling women had higher levels of estradiol, or E2, the body’s most abundant and potent estrogen.

These women were observed mid-cycle when E2 levels were the highest. Men and women on birth control both have lower levels of E2. Hormonal contraceptives suppress E2 production from the ovaries. 

All of the participants went through a series of “fear conditioning” and “fear extinction” experiences where they were shown pictures of faces presented with or without loud noise, designed to turn up and turn down fear.

During these experiences, skin conductance response and brain oscillations were measured. 

The small study found stronger fear expression under low E2 conditions, in the men and the women taking birth control, and lower fear expression in the mid-cycle women with higher E2.

This study shows a difference in fear between men and women, that is dependent upon hormones, and specifically estradiol

Action Steps To Address Fear, Stress And Anxiety

If the last year, or more, has been harder for you than typical years or you just know that it’s time to manage stress, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It might take a team of support from your Functional Medicine provider, therapist, family, friends and others, but you deserve the time and space to bring resiliency back to your HPA-axis and get out of the cycle of fear and anxiety.

In addition to personalized care, here are some action items to consider:

1. Don’t guess, test! Your hormones that is. The Every Life Well DUTCH Panel not only assesses HPA-axis dysfunction and cortisol levels, but also takes a very detailed look at estrogen. Balanced hormones are the key to feeling better and as you’ve seen are important for lowering the fear recall. 

2. Get out of the limbic loop. With chronic stress and a history of trauma, your body may be stuck in this survival mode. There are many tools to help retrain the brain in this regard discussed in The Limbic Loop – The Missing Piece In Your Healing Puzzle? These include meditation, neurofeedback and neural retraining. 

3. Increase oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone of connection that helps to lower stress and fear, while increasing the feeling of connection and safety. Ways to increase oxytocin include: hugging, cuddling, sex, bodywork, yoga, meditation, listening to music and spending time with loved ones. 

4. Consider supplemental support. Well-placed supplements are helpful for supporting the stress response and brain health, either while addressing the root causes of the stress and fear or on an ongoing basis.

Here are some of my favorite options: 

  • Stress Manager – A well – rounded nutrient and herbal formula designed to balance cortisol levels and support a healthy response to stress. 
  • CBD – Quality CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive compound extracted from hemp that helps to reduce anxiety and increase calmness by binding to the body’s own endocannabinoid receptors. Learn more about CBD and how to choose a quality product in the article CBD Vs. THC: Differences, Effects and Quality
  • Memory Magnesium – Magnesium is a common nutrient deficiency and an essential mineral for calming the nervous system and body.

5. Consider when fear is positive. Not all fear is bad. Sometimes being afraid and doing something regardless – is how we grow and evolve and ultimately get what we want out of life.

If you are fearful of putting yourself out there, making a work change or another area of life, consider that fear is actually an important positive messenger in some cases. 

When in balance, fear is a helpful and protective experience. It is both emotional and physiological. Fear produces changes in the brain and body that are measurable. Fear is influenced by stress hormones, estrogen and other biological factors.

When out of balance, fear drives anxiety and keeps us from moving forward and building optimal health.

Perhaps the first step in restoring balance is education and understanding about fear’s role in our own lives and health.

This awareness drives change.