The 2015 Disney Pixar film Inside Out presents a hilarious, yet informative, take on how emotions work. One of the core emotions portrayed is fear, which is said to be the emotion that helps to keep the main protagonist, Riley, safe. The film shows Riley as a little girl in an early scene, about to trip on a wire before Fear ‘takes the controls’ and alerts Riley, keeping her from harm.
Fear can also take centre stage in people’s daily lives. Take, for instance, a visit to the dentist. In practices such as the Bow House, a Centre of Dental Excellence, patients that are afraid pose a challenge but are expertly dealt with. Mild sedatives are used to help calm their nerves. In other situations, such as cinema-going, however, fear can be a central part of the entertainment. This is what makes horror films so popular.
This raises the question: is fear a negative or a positive emotion? To find out, we need to know exactly what it does to your brain.
Fear is a chain reaction within the brain that is triggered by a stressful stimulus. This stimulus causes the release of chemicals that affect how your body performs in a specific situation. These chemicals make your heart beat faster, make you more alert, and cause you to breathe hard. The physical changes are triggered for a good reason: they help you fend off danger or escape from it. It’s a concept known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Fear is also an important factor in self-control. Characterised as an instinctive, autonomous response, fear enables you to take stock of a potentially dangerous situation and gives you time to step away. By doing so, you can remove yourself from trouble. A complete lack of fear may cause you to lose control over desires that are normally repressed, putting you in situations that are, at best, socially unacceptable and, at worst, dangerous.
Fear can also heighten your instincts of self-preservation when you encounter an unfamiliar situation, however benign or safe it might be. This is evident in patients who are fearful of dental visits. To them, the dentist’s surgery is an alien environment that is more harmful than helpful. Their oral health often suffers because of these fears. Fortunately, dentists are well-aware of the hold fear has on these patients and they have tricks up their sleeves to reassure the most nervous client.